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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 Path by the River, Maidenhead

Sir John Lavery, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A. (Irish, 1856-1941)
The Path by the River, Maidenhead
signed 'J Lavery' (lower right); titled, signed and dated 'THE PATH BY THE RIVER/MAIDENHEAD/BY/JOHN LAVERY/1919' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
25 1/8 x 30 in. (63.8 x 76.2 cm.)
William Aiken, Esq., circa 1932.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 11 May 1988, lot 22.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 15 December 2010, lot 103.
with Messum's, London.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner, 20 April 2012.
London, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., Their Majesties' Court, Buckingham Palace, 1931, Portrait Studies and other Sketches by Sir John Lavery R.A., 1932, no. 55, as The Path by the River.
Dundee, Victoria Art Galleries, Paintings by Sir John Lavery Kt, RA, RSA, 1936, no. 29, as The Path by the River.
London, Messum’s, British Impressions, 2012, no. 60.

Condition report

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Lot Essay

While relief, celebration and optimism for the future spread swiftly following the Armistice in November 1918, Sir John Lavery’s tasks as one of the British government’s Official War Artists were far from over. At the beginning of 1919, he was required to travel to northern France to record field hospitals and supply depots before they were decommissioned. He must also visit the huge military cemetery at Étaples to paint the seemingly endless rows of crosses stretching towards the sea.
It was only then that he and his wife Hazel were able to escape to Sidi bou Said, overlooking the majestic bay of Tunis, for a brief holiday in the palatial villa restored by Baron d’Erlanger (K. McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010, pp. 144-5). They returned in mid-May to a London season in full swing; the regular routines of the studio were resumed and new commissions for portraits, taken up. Knighted for his war service, the Laverys were now important figures in London society, attending weekend parties in the home counties and the Lothians of Scotland. A favourite haunt was Taplow Court, a splendid Tudor-style mansion in Buckinghamshire, close to the Thames, and the home of the Grenfells. The chatelaine of Taplow, Lady Ettie Desborough, was one of the famous aesthete aristocratic circle known as ‘The Souls’ (J. Abdy and C. Gere, The Souls, 1984, pp. 54-68). From the house, an avenue of cedars, each planted by a distinguished statesman, would take visitors to the river’s edge near Boutler’s Lock, just north of Maidenhead, and it is here that the present canvas was painted.
The artist had great affection for these reaches of river landscape. In 1913, for instance, he had painted his wife, Hazel Lavery, in languorous mood, punting in the shallows at the water’s edge. At the same time a commission from the National Liberal Club for a portrait of the Prime Minister, HH Asquith, led to an invitation to the family’s country house at The Wharf, Sutton Courtenay, where, from the bank, he portrayed the Asquith daughters’ boating party (Dublin City Gallery; McConkey, 2010, p. 136). Later, in the twenties, he would regularly rent a houseboat, ideal as a floating studio, from which such events as the royal regatta at Henley would be sketched.
For the present however, the heady sense of escape from the horrors of war was palpable in that resplendent summer of 1919, and there was no better place to experience the freshness of nature’s flowering than on the river-side walk on a sunny day. Since his student years when he worked in the artist’s colony at Grez-sur-Loing, Lavery had been fascinated by sunlight filtered through foliage. Painting en plein air, so radical in the days of the Impressionists, had become the norm – to such an extent that he would always travel with a portable easel and slotted wooden case specially designed to take five freshly painted 25 x 30 inch canvases. On this occasion, the kit was assembled facing a long view of the path, with the river, off to the left. Following Manet’s dictum that the main element in any composition is light, Lavery noted the contrast between the glowing greens of the foreground canopy, and the silvery blue and pale emerald of the distant shade. These colours are anchored in the warm umbers and burnt siennas of the path, and cast into relief by a single spot of brilliant red in the cap of a passer-by. It is as though the Irish artist has taken a classic Sisley or Pissarro arrangement and modernised it, giving voice to a moment of liberation.
When Lavery’s Alpine Club exhibition was held in 1921, his pupil, Winston Churchill, paid tribute to the painter’s ingenuity on these occasions. He is, he wrote:
'… a plein-airiste if ever there was one, painting entirely out of doors, with his eye on the object, and never touching a landscape in the studio. No painter has ever coped so successfully with the difficulties of this method. His practical ability makes it child’s play to transport easel and extensive canvas to the chosen scene, to stabilize them against sudden gusts of wind, to protect them from the caprice of rain; and he is so quick that no coy transience of effect can save it from his clutches … In consequence there is a freshness and a natural glow about these pictures which give them an unusual charm. We are presented with the true integrity of an effect. And this flash is expressed in brilliant and beautiful colour with the ease of long mastery' (W. S. Churchill, ‘Foreword’, Pictures of Morocco, the Riviera and other Scenes by Sir John Lavery, RA, 1921, exh. cat., pp. 3-4).
Churchill’s views are apposite since he was Lavery’s pupil and, moving in the same social circles, he was often by the artist’s side during these years. Taplow was also one of his favourites. It is not unlikely that as Lavery painted the present picture, his pupil was working nearby on a canvas of the same dimensions, later gifted to Lady Juliet Duff. In Churchill’s case, we peep through the trees and the riverside path snakes off to the right (fig. 1; D. Coombs, Churchill, His Paintings, 1967, no. 56, wherein dated 1920s. Churchill’s portrait of Lavery was shown at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in November 1919).
Like many artists of his generation Lavery was not to be typecast. Never exclusively a portraitist, nor landscapist, much less a painter of still-life, he was essentially an artist-reporter. He observed and recorded what he saw, vividly, and with a profoundly schooled and expressive brush. And on a summer’s day on the tow-path near Maidenhead, this was never more obvious.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.

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