By 1904 the beaches of Tangier had begun to cast a spell over John Lavery. He had recently purchased a house on the outskirts of the city and was within walking distance of the sea. The annual winter pilgrimage to these warmer climes had begun, and would continue until shipping lanes for sun-seekers came under attack from U-boats in 1914. From his first visit to the city in 1891 when, in the absence of a modern harbour, he was ferried to the beach by rowing boat or Arab dhow, he was captivated by the ‘white city’. Two further winter trips were made, but it was only after a break of several years that he was able to renew his acquaintance with the North African port, and a long series of resplendent beach scenes stretching up to his last trip in 1920, resulted.
As the present example makes clear, and RB Cunninghame Graham observed in the catalogue of Lavery’s 1904 solo exhibition, it was a coast swept by ‘ceaseless wind’, ‘fleecy clouds’ and strong tides, ‘cutting the water here and there into white wavelets on the calmest day’ (Cabinet Pictures by John Lavery … The Leicester Galleries, 1904, p. 10). Thereafter, this channel between two great land masses grew in significance until, by 1908, even windy days did not deter him. In the present canvas the shoreline setting provides a bracing walk for one of his current travelling companions – his teenage daughter, Eileen, or his German model, Mary Auras. As she backs into the breeze the smoke from a passing P liner indicates that this is a strengthening easterly. Only her tiny Jack Russell appears oblivious to its power.
During his period of absence from Tangier, Lavery had adopted the role of Vice-President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, a task requiring great organizational skill and no small amount of diplomacy. His Presidents were Whistler and Rodin respectively, and during those first exhibitions he had the unenviable task of supervising the hang of important seascapes by the prickly American painter and by Claude Monet. Such pictures set the benchmark not only for him, but for a whole galaxy of modern painters such as Joaquín Sorolla, Max Liebermann, Peder Severin Kr?yer and others. Each of these artists shared Lavery’s subject matter. Young women – Proust’s jeune filles en fleurs - dressed in white, parade before the immensity of sea and sky like ‘gulls arriving from God knows where and performing with measured tread upon the sands’ (Remembrance of Things Past, Vol. 1, 1983 ed., p. 846). In A Windy Day, Lavery was at the centre of an international phenomenon.
The derivation of Lavery’s plein air figure-pieces dates back to his earliest days in France, but it was not until 1903, when he visited his old friend Alexander Harrison, model for Proust’s ‘Elstir’, and painter of seascapes at Beg-Meil in Brittany, that the idea of depicting a full-length bather - Auras as Summer – emerged. Essentially a companion-piece to Spring (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) his Salon exhibit of 1904, the figure holding a brilliant yellow parasol was an updated version of Monet’s celebrated Essai de figure en plein air, 1886 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Summer was then presented to Rodin in exchange for several sculptures – tokens of mutual admiration, Then, at Pourville in the following summer, Lavery painted his first version of A Windy Day, a large canvas showing the young Eileen leaning over a balustrade with an unidentified companion – a picture used as a centre-piece in the Venice Biennale in 1907.
By this time however, the scene had shifted to Tangier and Eileen and Mary were posing on the beach as Girls in Sunlight for what was essentially a plein air double portrait, that, like the present example, was painted on a breezy day. Much admired by Lavery’s early biographer, Walter Shaw Sparrow, it was described as ‘a charming sketch … the sea glowing in the background, and a glare coming from everywhere’ (ibid., p. 150). The author might well have been referring to the present picture. Unlike Summer, which is almost hieratic, this version of A Windy Day is full of movement and the girl’s scarlet sash flows out on the air with her skirts, like the white wrappers in Sorolla’s Seaside Stroll, 1909.
However, where Sorolla’s figures appear stiff and posed, Lavery has caught the instant. That training of the eye, commended by Bastien-Lepage a quarter century earlier, had not diminished, and reviewing pictures of this type in the artist’s retrospective exhibition in 1914, James Bone in the Manchester Guardian noted that the ‘bright direct impressions of figures in sunshine’ that began ‘chillily on the Clyde coast’ had risen ‘to the clear brilliance of Tangier’ (22 June 1914, p. 3). There was an immediacy about these works – ‘nothing … stood between the artist’s eye and the picture he set on canvas’ – and they were ‘among the most living achievements of Impressionism’. A young woman will not have sand blown in her eyes or lose her hat, as she turns to face the afternoon sun. And behind her the dog, head down, sniffs the breeze, as dogs do.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.