In the wake of the Whistler Memorial Exhibition, which he helped organise at the New Gallery in 1905, Lavery paused to reflect upon the painter who had been a friend, critic, and close collaborator in the formation and running of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. He particularly admired Whistler's nocturnes, sometimes known as 'moonlights'.1 These almost abstract compositions portrayed a London that Whistler famously characterised as 'fairyland'. For Lavery, living in Cromwell Place and daily witnessing the noisy construction of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the metropolis could not be described in this way. Yet the appeal of Whistler's mystery and his supremely sensitive use of pigment was strong.
However, Whistler was not the only painter of nocturnes. By this time, Lavery had renewed his acquaintance with the work of another American expatriate, Alexander Harrison, whose studio he visited at Beg Meil in 1903.2 Although he exhibited regularly at the Salon, Harrison's recent work was little known in Britain. Having abandoned peasant subjects from the days of Bastien-Lepage, he too was infatuated by silver evening light - in his case, illuminating the shoreline (fig. 1).
Simultaneously Lavery was re-establishing Tangier as his winter base, and it was there that the twin influences of Harrison and Whistler were felt in a number of beach scenes which he described as 'moonlights'. The present canvas-board typifies this group of works - painted with a uniform Whistlerian 'sauce', an application of thin liquid paint conveying the night sky. The subtlest transitions of hue take the eye from pale grey-blue to mauve and on to the deeper blue of the sea at the horizon. A single light hovering above the sea suggests that there in the darkness a boat is passing. The sandy shore, broken only by a dark pool on the right reflects the moonlight, lending an air of mystery to the whole.3 The two figures towards the light, punctuate the space.
The present Moonlight is a close companion to Seashore Moonlight, (fig. 2, unlocated) which was shown at Lavery's solo exhibition in 1908. The same critic's comments that although 'reminiscent of Whistler' it was considered 'charming and original', might justifiably apply to both pictures.4 Other night pieces in the same exhibition showed the bay and views over the housetops. One of these may well have been Tangier Harbour at Night, (fig. 3, sold The Forbes Collection, Christie's, London, 19 February 2003, lot 206).
On subsequent visits to the city Lavery frequently returned to the warm evening afterglow, painting pictures such as The Close of Day, Tangier, c. 1911 and The Terrace, Night, 1912. These demonstrate as formidably as the present study that whatever his source of inspiration, the Tangier moonlight was his alone.
1 For Lavery and Whistler, see K. McConkey, John Lavery, Edinburgh, 1993, pp. 67-82.
2 Harrison was an early mentor of Lavery's. He and William Stott of Oldham vied for the attentions of the art student community in the early 1880s. See W. Shaw Sparrow, John Lavery and his Work, London, n.d., , pp. 44, 99-101.
3 The dark pool on the right, seen in full in other sketches describes the far corner of Tangier bay, near the Villa Harris, in an area then known locally as 'where the Jews' river reaches the sea'. As the phrase suggests, this was the Jewish quarter, beyond the fortified Kasbah.
4 Anon., 'Studio Talk', The Studio, Vol. XLIV, 1908, p. 70. The Seashore, Moonlight, no. 51 in the artist's 1908 exhibition, was priced at 75 guineas, indicating that it was a larger work than the present example.
We are very grateful to Kenneth McConkey for preparing the catalogue entries for lots 108-112.