Audio: Sir John Lavery, The Bathing Hour, Lido, Venice
Sir John Lavery, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A. (1856-1941)
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Sir John Lavery, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A. (1856-1941)

The Bathing Hour, Lido, Venice

Sir John Lavery, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A. (1856-1941)
The Bathing Hour, Lido, Venice
signed ‘J Lavery‘ (lower right) and signed, inscribed and dated ‘JOHN LAVERY/5. CROMWELL PL/LONDON/1912/THE BATHING HOUR/LIDO’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
18 x 30 in. (45.6 x 76.2 cm.)
with James Connell, Glasgow, circa 1920.
Purchased by the present owner's father in Scotland, circa late 1940s.

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Anne Haasjes
Anne Haasjes

Lot Essay

In 1912 the German author Thomas Mann, published Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice). His hero, the writer, Aschenbach, is staying in the Hotel des Bains, on the Lido, a spit of sand protecting the Venetian Lagoon from the ravages of the Adriatic. Sitting on the shore, he is impressed by,

'... the sight of sophisticated society giving itself over to a simple life at the edge of the elements. The shallow grey sea was already gay with children wading, with swimmers, with figures in bright colours lying on sand banks … A long row of capanne ran down the beach, with platforms, where people sat as on verandas, and there was social life, with bustle and with indolent repose … '. (Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, 1928 (trans H.T. Lowe-Porter, Penguin ed., 1971; first published as Der Tod in Venedig, 1912), p. 31).

Here too, the aged writer spots Tadzio, the Apollonian youth who enthralls him.

Through Aschenbach, Mann was describing a scene which at that very moment captivated the painter, John Lavery. Although he was spending a fortnight’s holiday on the Lido, Lavery, as ever, could not resist packing his travelling easel, and on at least four occasions painted the ‘social life’ which the writer describes, and which was recreated in 1971 for Visconti’s memorable film. It shows ‘the bathing hour’ during which the newly-constructed bathing platform at the modern Moorish-style Excelsior Hotel, where the Laverys were staying, sprang to life (The Excelsior Hotel opened in 1908, with its own bathing establishment; see Sylvia Sprigge, The Lagoon of Venice, 1961 (Max Parrish), p. 80; Karl Baedeker, Northern Italy, 1913 (T. Fisher Unwin), p. 412). Children played on the sands, athletic young men took the plunge, and elegant women, holding parasols, paraded before his eyes. For the painter this lotus land was ‘Music that gentlier on the spirit lies/ Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes’ (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lotus Eaters, (1832), lines 50-51).

Lavery arrived in Venice in September 1912, exhausted. Before his departure he had written to his cousin, Kate Clenaghan, that since his return from Tangier in May he had been intensely busy and was ‘feeling the strain’ (letter to Kate Clenaghan, dated 29 August 1912 (private collection), quoted in Kenneth McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010 (Atelier Books), p. 116. Kate Clenaghan (née Lavery) was the painter’s first cousin and she lived on the family farm at Soldierstown in Co Armagh, in Northern Ireland). The previous twelve months had seen the newly-elected Associate of the Royal Academy, completing his portraits of the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and sittings with Geraldine Churchill and others were arranged for the autumn. He had also been approached by the publisher, Hugh Spottiswoode, with a commission to paint a presentation portrait of the Royal Family for the National Portrait Gallery – all of which necessitated this brief respite (while in Tangier, Lavery had hosted the marriage of his daughter, Eileen to the solicitor, James Dickinson while supplying information to Walter Shaw Sparrow for his forthcoming monograph, John Lavery and his Work, 1912 (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co).

It was not Lavery’s first visit to the ‘Floating City’, but it was the first occasion on which he stayed on the Lido. Following his initial visit in 1892, subsequent sojourns were business affairs, connected with the Biennale - most notably in 1910 when he was chosen to represent Great Britain with a solo exhibition of 53 works (Lavery, was accompanied by his friend, the Glasgow School painter Lavery participated in each Biennale exhibition from 1897 to 1910 and during this period his Mrs Lawrie and Edwin, 1892 and A Lady in Pink: Miss Mary Delmar Morgan, 1903 were acquired by the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Venice. His 1910 retrospective at the Biennale contained 53 works (Lavery, was accompanied by this friend, the Glasgow School painter Alexander Roche, on his first visit to Venice in 1892. Although a small canvas-board depicting Piazza San Marco commemorates the occasion, the short stay was not without its frustrations. Roche he later recalled, was ‘Baedeker in excelsis’ and ‘there was not a stone he did not have something to tell me about’ (1924 Diary, unpublished draft memoir, private collection). In the intervening years the Venetian authorities had acquired two of his paintings – as had the Italian Royal Family and the Galleria Nationale in Rome (Lavery participated in each Biennale exhibition from 1897 to 1910 and during this period his Mrs Lawrie and Edwin, 1892 and A Lady in Pink: Miss Mary Delmar Morgan, 1903 were acquired by the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Venice. His 1910 retrospective at the Biennale contained 53 works). However, although he claimed in 1912 that the break at the Excelsior would do him good, there may have been ulterior motives, for the Lido had become fashionable.

Its modern development, begun under the Austrians in the 1830s, had continued apace after the risorgimento. Political stability coupled with the popular belief in the efficacious quality of sea-bathing, led to the rapid expansion of tourism. The Lido was more fragrant than Venice with its negligible sewage system, occasional outbreaks of cholera, and plagues of mosquitoes, and by 1912 in addition to its two major hotels, it sported holiday villas occupied by British and German expatriates (E.V. Lucas, A Wanderer in Venice, 1914, (Methuen, 8th ed. 1925), pp. 259-260; see also Richard Mullen and James Munson, ‘The Smell of the Continent’ The British Discover Europe, 2009 (MacMillan), p. 95). Shortly after their arrival the Laverys discovered that Lady Cunard was already there awaiting the arrival of the Asquiths, while the Duchess of Rutland was holidaying on the Lido with her daughter, Lady Diana Manners, also a Lavery sitter. With them was a host of other British and European aristocrats. (A press cutting in Lady Lavery’s scrapbook indicates that in addition to the Rutlands and Lady Cunard, Lord and Lady Angelsea, Lady Helen Vincent, Baroness Adolphe de Meyer, Bernard Berenson and Giovanni Boldini, along with wealthy Americans and members of the Serbian, Greek and Spanish royal families were present, quoted in McConkey 2010, p. 118. An added attraction was the newly reconstructed campanile in St Mark’s Square, which had collapsed in 1902 and after ten years of reconstruction, had been reopened at the end of April). If one wished to make connections, this was the place to be.

Nevertheless, the development of the Lido as an elite tourist destination did not please every visitor and looking back to his first sojourn in 1869, Henry James felt that it,

'… has been spoiled. When I first saw it … it was a very natural place, and there was but a rough lane across the little island from the landing-place to the beach. There was a bathing-place … and a restaurant, which was very bad … Today the Lido is part of united Italy and has been made the victim of villainous improvements … ' (Henry James, Italian Hours, 1909 (Grove Press, New York ed., 1979), p. 28. When James’s essay was first published in 1882, he observed that Venice was attracting ‘Germans’ and ‘larking Londoners’ who filled the hotels).

If the beach at the Lido was ‘still lonely and beautiful…’ on James’s return in 1882, it was no longer so for Lavery and Mann. As is clear from The Bathing Hour, (the present work), this was no drawback for the gregarious painter.

There, he produced four known canvases characterised by their remarkable spontaneity. One, The Lido, Venice, has long remained unlocated; a second, is simply known as On the Beach; while the third, Bathing, The Lido, Venice, shows a scene similar to that of The Bathing Hour, the previously unidentified fourth canvas in the sequence. Bathing, the Lido, Venice indicates that for this final picture, Lavery made use of the awning of one of the hotel’s capannes to shield his work from the sun’s glare (On the Beach was sold in these Rooms, on 12 March 1993; Bathing, The Lido, Venice, was sold Sotheby’s 11 May 2006). Other features move from painting to painting within the sequence. The white and black-trimmed parasol held by Hazel Lavery in The Bathing Hour, for instance, appears in three of the four pictures; wooden deck-chairs, benches and bathing platforms reappear; and Hazel’s eight-year-old daughter, Alice, who falls under the ever-watchful eye of her mother in The Bathing Hour, is repeated from On the Beach.

Lavery was of course, no stranger to scenes of this kind. During the early 1890s he began a long sequence of beach scenes at Tangier. He also painted at Dieppe and Beg Meil, and would go on to paint coastal views at North Berwick, St Jean de Luz and the Riviera. On the Lido however, he came closest to the crowded shorelines of Impressionists such as Eugène Boudin and Claude Monet (Boudin painted in Venice in 1895, and Monet in 1908, and although neither worked on the Lido, they had painted numerous beach scenes on the Normandy coast. For surveys of artist-travellers to Venice in the 19th and early 20th centuries see Julian Halsby, Venice, The Artist’s Vision, A Guide to British and American Painters, 1990, (B.T. Batsford Ltd.); For the Impressionists see Mark Evans, Impressions of Venice, 1992, (exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), and he may even have verified the observation of the illustrator, Frank Richards, who actually recommended working ‘under the awning’ where,

'… the dark purple shadow is always very inviting – there one can sit and paint in the shade, sipping coffee, cognac or chianti … at one’s pleasure’ (Frank Richards, ‘Letters from Artists to Artists. No X. Venice as a Sketching Ground’, The Studio, III, 1894, pp. 170-179).

Yet Lavery’s metier was set by 1912, and his manner – sweeping fluid strokes across the canvas to establish the basic divisions of sand, sea and sky was essentially more Whistlerian than Monet-esque. He worked in the confident virtuoso style of Joaquin Sorolla and John Singer Sargent, deftly placing his figures as on a stage. This does not diminish the fundamental truth of his observation, and the more he looked the more he realized that this particular beach differed from those at Tangier, Pourville and Beg Meil. Here were the subtlest of pale emeralds, the sands tended to silver, and the sky, laden with moisture, was pearl grey. White gowns were the dress code and at a distance they echoed the sparkle that came from the rippling tide. (Elsewhere on the Lido, these codes were breached and various commentators regarded the Lido as ‘the parade ground for the most daring bathing costumes’, quoted in John Pemble, Venice Rediscovered, 1995 (Clarendon Press, Oxford), p. 16).

Many writers of the period talked of the incredible High Renaissance richness of la Serenissima. Having read Ruskin, ticked the Rialto and the Riva di Schiavoni in Baedeker, and feasted on Tintoretto and Veronese, they retreated, like the poet, Arthur Symons, to rest exhausted eyes on the glistening clarity of the Istrian waters. In essays for The Saturday Review, Symons found that on the Lido, the sea,

'… rippled so gently against the sand at my feet … It shone and seemed to grow whiter and whiter, as it stretched out towards the horizon … it has the delicacy, the quietude of the lagoon, with … the beckoning of a possible escape from the monotony of too exquisite things'. (Quoted from Arthur Symons, Cities of Italy, 1907 (J.M. Dent & Co), p. 74).

This escape, this exquisite ennui was Lavery’s subject at the bathing hour.

We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.

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