Throughout the nineteenth century women of the Orient captivated western travellers. Painters from Delacroix and Fromentin onwards, in their forays into North Africa, set out to catch the mysterious beauty of a world that was strictly circumscribed. 'Private life', as Fromentin observed, was 'protected by impenetrable walls' and women, when they occasionally appeared, were only fleetingly observed, fully veiled, their voices were heard on rooftop terraces, like those of 'an invisible bird'.1 Even in desert camps, as John Lavery's travelling companion, R.B. Cunninghame Graham noted, the women would seldom leave their tents until evening when, with their faces covered by a blue veil, they would walk to the well.2 Concealment fuelled the curiosity.
From Lavery's first arrival in Tangier in January 1891 until his final visit in the winter of 1920, beach and bustling market place scenes were interleaved with studies of Arab girls in colourful costumes. An early ambition was to paint a Moorish dance. Lavery claimed that his first sight of a Moorish girl's face was at the home of a rich Moor in Fez. Here, when dining with his friend, The Times correspondent, Walter Harris, he witnessed a dance du ventre, performed by four girls, the finest of whom refused to sit for her portrait.3 This is unlikely to be the case since he did not travel to the capital of eastern Morocco until 1907 and the first head studies Moorish dancers were painted at Tangier in 1892 and 1893 (A Moorish Girl, 1892, private collection).
By the time of this inland adventure he had nevertheless gained admission to a harem and claimed to be the first western artist to paint in one - earlier artists such as Delacroix having worked exclusively from sketches and from memory.
His objective was shared with numerous European artists and writers at a time when North Africa, and Tangier in particular, was held to be of immense strategic importance to trade with the east. When Lavery purchased 'Dar-el-Midfah' - 'the house of the canon' - on Mount Washington to the southwest of the Kasbah, the city was 'protected' by a web of treaties secretly agreed by the European Powers. For the following ten years until the outbreak of war, it was a regular winter haunt, providing a welcome escape from the busy London studio. Freed from portrait commissions Lavery took a 'busman's holiday', painting studies of young Arab women purely for pleasure.
In the sequence begun around 1907 they sat for him singly and in pairs and were painted uniformly as half-length portraits - their subjects, Fatima Farghé, Zächara and Hadéshia, Ada Ilhralm, posed simply with hands clasped.4 The project continued up to 1914 when Hadéshia and Zächara, were painted singly, along with Moina, and a picture known as The Moorish Madonna. The most important of these Arab models was 'a girl of about sixteen' called 'Aïsha' who could only speak Spanish and Arabic when they met. 'She preferred', Lavery records, 'to call herself Aïda because it sounded Spanish'. Employed as a servant, she was bright, acquired sufficient English to communicate within a month, and continued to work for the painter on his Tangier sojourns after his marriage to Hazel Trudeau in 1909. Her full name is likely to have been Aïda Ilhralm, and she posed both in profile and full face for the painter (Aïda, A Moorish Maid, circa 1908 and Aïda Ilhralm, circa 1908). He recounts that her portrait was sent to his retrospective at the Venice Biennale in 1910 where it was purchased by the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel III, and reproduced on the cover of Illustrazione Italiana.5 Aïda was delighted with this and at one point even used it to claim to a young German poet that she was a Moorish princess who was being ill-treated by her master. Lavery risked being labeled a slave-trafficker!
He notes that she was smuggled out of Tangier with the assistance of the British Envoy, Sir Reginald Lister, who 'assured the Basha that she would be brought back safely'. She was then dressed in European clothes but became seasick being ferried to the P&O liner and Lavery was obliged to bribe the boatman not to reveal her identity. In London she posed in the background of The Artist's Studio, a group portrait painted for the Rome International Exhibition of 1911.6 This elaborate echo of Las Meninas was subsequently enlarged and reworked when Lavery was painting the Royal Family (National Portrait Gallery), giving her greater prominence on the left of the composition (The Artist's Studio, 1910-13, National Gallery of Ireland).
When in the early months of 1911, it was time for her to return to Tangier, she refused, declaring that she had attained her freedom 'under the British Flag'. Lavery consulted the Foreign Office which affirmed that as she was not an 'undesirable alien', she could not be forced to return. However, she remained in his service until the outbreak of war when she disappeared to work in a munitions factory. All further contact was lost when, after the war, she married the factory manager.7
Lavery, as the present portrait clearly shows, responded to Aïda's personality. Dressed in her finery she presents an imposing figure, similar to those described by Edith Wharton on her tour of Morocco in the entourage of General Lyautey. In the Sultan's palace Wharton found concubines whose eyes were 'kholed' and whose hair was braided with ropes of black wool and were decked with necklaces of amber, coral and pearls 'hung with mysterious barbaric amulets and fetishes' that she compared to an 'Italian fourteenth century beauty'.8 Lavery's Aïda may be a servant girl of humble origin, yet in the present portrait she acquires a similar lineage.
1 E. Fromentin, Une année dans le Sahel, 1859 (Paris, Michel Lévy fréres; Tauris Parke (ed.), 2004; trans. Blake Robinson), p. 18.
2 See R.B. Cunninghame Graham, 'The Atmosphere of Morocco', in C. Holme (ed.), Sketching Grounds, 1909, (Offices of The Studio), p. 150.
3 J. Lavery, The Life of a Painter, 1940 (Cassell), p. 102; Harris's portrait by Lavery was sold Christie's, 10 May 2007. K. McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010, (Atelier Books), pp. 96-7.
4 K. McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010 (Atelier Books), pp. 114-116; R.B. Cunninghame Graham, 1909, p. 148. Of these Fatima Fargé passed through the Fine Art Society, circa 1990, The Moorish Madonna, was sold Sotheby's, 13 May 2004, and Zächara was sold Christie's and Edmiston's, 30 November 1982 (see McConkey, 2010, p. 116, illus). The others remain unlocated.
5 J. Lavery, The Life of a Painter, 1940 (Cassell), pp. 131-2. It has not been possible to verify this account. Lavery's work was indeed featured on the cover of Illustrazione Italiana, but the picture used was the portrait of Lady Evelyn Farquhar (vol. 37, no. 19, 5 Maggio 1910). Shaw Sparrow (p. 193) also indicates that Hadeisha (his spelling) and not Aïda was the picture purchased by Victor Emmanuel III. This remains unlocated.
6 K. McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010 (Atelier Books), pp. 108-9.
7 Lavery, Life, p. 133.
8 E. Wharton, In Morocco, 1920 (Jonathan Cape, Travellers Library ed., 1927), p. 138.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing the catalogue entries for lots 26 and 29.