John Lavery (1856 – 1941) Belfast-born artist, part of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ who was knighted after the First World War.

On the 20th of March 1856 Sir John Lavery – famed Glasgow Boys artist – was born in Belfast.  

He was the middle child of Henry Lavery and May Donnelly but was orphaned when he was 3 years old. His brother Henry and sister Jane went to live with different relatives and John was sent to County Down where his Aunt Rose and Uncle Edward had a farm. 

When John was 10 he moved to Saltcoats to live with his Aunt’s cousin at the Union Loan Office (a pawnshop) in Countess Street.  

In his autobiography “The Life of a Painter” John describes his journey on the Belfast-Ardrossan passenger and cattle steamer and walk to Saltcoats… “I had never seen the sea before, nor waves rolling up a beach. We arrived at the other side in early morning and proceeded to walk the mile or so towards our destination, which was at a place called Saltcoats.” He then goes on to describe the inspiration for “Two Girls in Sunlight”… “We passed two girls disporting themselves in the water both of whom I painted forty years later.” John attended school in Saltcoats, was a member of Saltcoats Cricket Club and went to confession at Easter at St. Mary’s. He also enjoyed spending time with the local travelling theatre groups. He attributes his final years in Saltcoats as being “the turning point in my life” as it was here that he became fascinated by the local grocer who drew “profiles in pencil” which he copied before moving on to draw himself “until I was getting a reputation almost equal to that of the grocer”. John ran away to Glasgow a few times and eventually found work hand colouring prints for a photographer. He attended the Haldane School of Art (part of the Glasgow School of Art) and later studying in London and France. 

On his return from Paris his painting a “Tennis Party”(1884) was accepted by the Royal Academy and was linked with what later became “The Glasgow School”. Following a small one man show in Glasgow in Spring of 1888, he was chosen by Glasgow Corporation to paint the state visit of Queen Victoria in the August. This large canvas required personal sittings from over 200 people, including Queen Victoria. The painting still hangs in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. 

This launched his career as a society painter and he moved to London. He was appointed an official war artist during WW1 and when ill health prevented him going to the front, the Admiralty commissioned him to make a record on canvas of the naval bases which included various studies of the Fleet on the Forth.  

He married Kathleen MacDickmott but she died of tuberculosis shortly after the birth of their daughter Eileen. In 1909 he married Hazel Martyn and they had one daughter Alice. Hazel was an Irish American beauty and was often used as a subject by her husband in his paintings – including the figure used on Irish banknotes from 1928 until 1975.  

He was knighted in 1911 and in 1921 he was elected to the Royal Academy. He was also a member of the Royal Scottish Academy as well as various other Academies. 

John died in County Kilkenny, aged 84, from natural causes. He is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery in London next to his wife Hazel who died in 1935.  

The Town Hall in Saltcoats has a room named after him where you can get married and has a few of his prints on display. North Ayrshire Council has 2 of his original works “Little Emily” and “El Espada” in their fine art collection. 

Further Reading

Sir John Lavery at ARTUK

Sir John Lavery at National Galleries Scotland

Sir John Lavery at