After the ‘Victory’ parades in summer of 1919, there was a national upsurge in sporting and pleasure activities and graphic dispatches from the Western Front were replaced in the popular press by reports on tennis, golf and horse racing fixtures, some of which were adopted into the London Season. A painter, in Sir John Lavery’s opinion, could not afford to ignore these newsworthy events and in the twenties, all three at different points claimed his attention.
River sports however, had a longer lineage than tennis and golf, and following the exhibition of Tennis, Hotel Beau Site, Cannes in 1929 (sold Christie’s, 20 November 2013) he returned to an unrealized ambition. This was to paint the great regattas at Maidenhead and Henley –subjects ultimately derived from one of his most famous early canvases, The Bridge at Grez, 1883. In 1914 he had depicted the idyllic Thames at Maidenhead, followed by The Wharf, Sutton Courtenay 1916 (Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin). But these gentle punting scenes represented private rather than public occasions, and he may have recalled the splendid series of watercolours of Henley Regatta painted by his friend, Arthur Melville, thirty years earlier.
Following its establishment in 1839 when Oxford and Cambridge ‘Academicals’ first competed at Henley, annual summer regattas on the Thames grew in number, with smaller gatherings at Sunbury, Datchet and Maidenhead. The notoriety of this latter stretch of river, close to the Maidenhead road and railway bridges, derived principally from JMW Turner’s extraordinary evocation of Rain, Steam and Speed, 1845 (National Gallery, London), yet the effects of industrialisation did not reduce its attractions. Although in 1851, neighbouring Henley received ‘Royal’ designation, by the end of the century houseboats and spectators’ craft were so numerous at Maidenhead that the races were disrupted. Such was the potential for chaos that the Thames Conservancy Board stepped in and all craft had to be registered.
Nevertheless the event at Maidenhead grew to rival that of Henley in the years preceding the Great War, when one commentator observed that the former was ‘too snobby to be pleasant, the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion, showy hotels and those demons of the river, steam-launches’ (Cyllene Moxon, The Day before Yesterday, (1956) quoted in James Lavery, Edwardian Promenade, 1958 (Edward Hulton), p. 44). As with Ascot race meetings, displays of fashion became as important as the competitions and the lawn at Skindle’s Hotel, Maidenhead was the assembly point where everyone came ‘to see and be seen’. During the twenties the parade attracted ‘Bright Young Things’ in motor-boats, replacing the steam-launches of yesteryear.
Having completed a series of canvases depicting race meetings at Hurst Park, Ascot and Epsom, and exhibited the Cannes tennis picture, Lavery turned his attention to the two principal regattas. Small unfinished oils were painted at Remenham in 1929 but progress was deferred due to illnesses which both Lavery and his wife, Hazel, suffered in 1930. The task appears not to have been resumed until 1932 when the present preparatory sketch was made for Maidenhead Regatta. The large exhibition piece to which it relates was shown at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts in 1936 (Maidenhead Regatta, 1932, Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums) and donated to Glasgow Art Gallery the following year.
Although the viewpoints for the present sketch and finished work are the same, Lavery has completely altered the crowd scene in the Glasgow version and added a skiff with awning, derived from his Remenham studies, to the immediate foreground. Separate unfinished studies related to these amendments are contained in private collections. Nevertheless in other essentials, the present picture catches the mood of the occasion - the English sky, the cool colours and the sense of expectation in the gathering of onlookers - all which is vividly captured. Two years later, in 1934, he resumed his task, this time working at Henley – but sadly due to Hazel’s death, this second great regatta project did not proceed beyond an equally arresting oil sketch (Henley, 1934, sold at Christie’s, London, 19 May 2000).
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.