Sir John Lavery, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A. (Irish, 1856-1941)
Sir John Lavery, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A. (Irish, 1856-1941)

The Lady in White, Viscountess Wimborne

Sir John Lavery, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A. (Irish, 1856-1941)
The Lady in White, Viscountess Wimborne
signed 'J Lavery' (lower right); inscribed, signed and dated 'THE LADY IN WHITE/VISCOUNTESS/WIMBORNE/LAVERY - 1939' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
79 1/8 x 40 in. (201 x 101.6 cm.)
The artist.
Katharine FitzGerald, his secretary, by inheritance.
Her sale; Christie's, London, 27 May 1948, lot 121, as The Lady in White.
with Arnold Wiggins and Sons, London, acquired at the above sale.
with Colnaghi and Simon, London, by 1985.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner, 18 August 1986.
J. Lavery, The Life of a Painter, London, 1940, n.p. illustrated, as Viscountess Wimborne.
K. McConkey, Sir John Lavery, Edinburgh, 1993, pp. 203-204, pl. 245, illustrated, as Viscountess Wimborne.
K. McConkey, Sir John Lavery, a painter and his world, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 184, 200-201, 203, fig. 240, illustrated, as Viscountess Wimborne.
London, Royal Academy, The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, The One Hundred and Seventy-First Summer Exhibition, 1 May-7 August 1939, no. 159, as The Viscountess Wimborne.
London, Colnaghi and The Clarendon Gallery, Society Portraits, 1850-1939, 30 October - 14 December 1985, pp. 114-115, no. 49, illustrated, as Portrait of the Viscountess Wimborne.

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Lot Essay

Painted only two years before the great Irish artist’s death, The Lady in White, Viscountess Wimborne is a bravura example of Sir John Lavery’s work as a portraitist. The work depicts Alice Katherine Sibell Grosvenor (fig. 1), the daughter of Robert Wellesley Grosvenor, 2nd Baron Ebury, and the wife of Ivor Churchill Guest, cousin to Winston Churchill. An established society hostess, savvy political spouse, and later mistress to the celebrated composer William Walton, Lady Wimborne’s vivacious, self-assured personality is perfectly reflected in this masterful painting. The confident, rapid brushwork shows no diminution of the artist’s powers even at his advanced age, and the work is considered by Kenneth McConkey to be one of two of the artist’s last great society portraits.
The Wimbornes, then without title, were married in 1902 when the then Captain Ivor Guest was serving as a Conservative MP for the constituency of Plymouth. He sat as MP until 1910 when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Ashby St. Ledgers. From 1915 to 1918 he served as the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the beginning of one of the most troubled periods in that nation’s history, and was in office during the Easter Rising. Two letters from the Viscountess to her mother describing the Easter Rising are now in the collection of the National Library of Ireland. On his retirement in 1918 Baron Wimborne was created first Viscount Wimborne.
By the time the present work was painted the Wimbornes were largely living separate lives. In 1934 Lady Wimborne met and became the lover of the young composer William Walton, who was 22 years her junior. She would help guide and nurture Walton’s career until her death from lung cancer in 1948, and though he married quickly after her death she has long been considered the love of Walton’s life. Lady Wimborne was integral to Walton’s career, encouraging him to refine his musical talents and moving him out of the sphere of influence of his friends in London, with whom he drank heavily. Meeting Alice enabled the composer to finish Belshazzar's Feast, and the exuberance of the work’s final movement is often attributed to the domestic happiness he had found with Lady Wimborne. Walton’s A Minor String Quartet and the Violin Concerto commissioned by Jascha Heifetz which he wrote while staying with Alice at the Villa Cimbrone above Amalfi are also said to be inspired by his love for her. The latter work was completed in 1939, the same year as the present portrait.
The affair between Lady Wimborne and Walton crackles as an undercurrent through Lavery’s first painting of her, Chamber Music, Wimborne House, painted in 1937 (fig. 3). Concerts were a frequent occurrence at Wimborne House, and Alice regularly threw parties there to celebrate and promote Walton’s work. In this painting she is seen at lower right, presiding over a concert taking place in the ornate ballroom at Wimborne House, her home in London. The complex composition – which in order to encompass the whole of the ballroom, the guests and orchestra had to be depicted from quite a high perspective – was a challenge for Lavery, who considered giving up on the picture entirely on several occasions. Among the figures in the room one finds Walton himself, crouching at Lady Wimborne’s feet. His affair with Alice had just become known to their mutual friend and Walton’s former patron Osbert Sitwell, who disapproved so strongly that his relationship with both parties never recovered. All of this information would have been well-known to those in the social circles in which they ran, and the physical closeness between Alice and Walton would have certainly been a wink to anyone ‘in the know’ who viewed the picture.
In the present portrait, painted two years later when Alice was 59, Lavery largely returns to the pose he had already worked out for her in Chamber Music, Wimborne House. Now though, instead of depicting her as the hostess casting her eye around the room at her guests, Lavery shows Lady Wimborne on a grand scale, staring confidently out of the picture plane. Though she glances over her shoulder, her gaze is not a flirtatious one, but rather that of a woman confident in her position and in her own beauty, her eyebrow slightly cocked toward the viewer while she absentmindedly pulls on her long strand of pearls. Kenneth McConkey describes the picture as ‘the summation of fifty years experience’ of the artist’s working practice. McConkey comments on the surety of the artist’s almost notational brushwork, a technique that speaks to the influence of Velasquez. ‘Like the great masters of the seventeenth century, Lavery’s goal was to be able to recognise, in the objects he saw, the paint formula that would convey their existence’ (K. McConkey, Sir John Lavery, 1993, p. 204). This technique is particularly apparent in the confident, broad flashes of brushwork in her shoe and dress, and in the gilded table and flowers behind the sitter, bringing these elements to life with sparingly few touches of the artist’s brush to the canvas. Not only does McConkey regard the aging artist’s dazzling work in this painting as a demonstration of his enduring talents but also that his ability to tackle the present portrait on such a large scale represents a remarkable moment of renewal in his oeuvre.
The Viscountess’s dress must have been a particular favorite of hers, as she is also wearing this same dress in Chamber Music, Wimborne House. The dress, a white backless silk halter dress with a golden laurel wreath belt at the waist was the work of the French couturier Madeleine Vionnet, and was certainly the height of fashion, having appeared on the cover of French Vogue in December of 1936 (fig. 2). Vionnet, known as the ‘Queen of the bias cut,’ is best remembered for her sleek Grecian-inspired dresses which played an integral part in women’s fashion moving away from the stiff, formal clothing of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Eschewing corsets, padding, stiffening, and anything that distorted the natural curves of a woman's body, she used the bias cut to enable her dresses to cling to the body while still stretching and moving with the wearer. Vionnet's use of the bias cut to create a flattering, body-skimming look revolutionized women's clothing and brought her to the height of the fashion world, with her elegant dresses regularly worn by Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo during the 1930s. Because of the encroaching threat of the Second World War, she was forced to close her design house in the same year the present work was painted.
Lady Wimborne's portrait perfectly reflects both its sitter's personality and the moment in which it was created. Her confidence, independence, and Hollywood-inspired glamour are the perfect encapsulation of the modern attitudes and quickly changing pace of life in inter-war Britain. So too does it brilliantly illustrate the skill and accomplishments of Lavery at the end of his long and illustrious career. In his auto-biography, published in the same year she died, Lady Wimborne’s erstwhile friend the poet Osbert Sitwell offered his appraisal of her personality, so clearly captured by Lavery: ‘Her great beauty, subtle and full of glamour though it was, and the fact that she was the wife of one of the richest men in England, were apt to blind people equally to her political intelligence, interest, and experience. The attitude she presented to the world of a fashionable beauty who dressed with daring and loved admiration, the guise of an accomplished woman of the world, which was hers naturally, by birth, tradition and upbringing, hid from the crowd the clever woman who inhabited this exquisite shell’ (Laughter in the Next Room, 1948, p. 238).

(fig. 1): Lady Wimborne on the Lido, Venice, 1927. © TopFoto / The Image Works.
(fig. 2): Cover of Vogue (France), December 1936.
(fig. 3): John Lavery, Chamber Music, Wimborne House, 1937.

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