Like The Golf Links, North Berwick, (lot 115) the present picture was painted near the entrance to Westerdunes, Sir Patrick Ford's villa, on the eastern approaches to the Firth of Forth. Working in the late afternoon, under a clear evening sky from a slightly different viewpoint the greens and fairways darken and the patchwork of bunkers begins to disappear as a willowy female player drives off. There is something heroic about this energy expended in the fading northern light. Immediately following the Great War, when Britain was in the grip of an unprecedented influenza epidemic, the Edwardian rhetoric of healthy outdoor sporting pursuits was being revived. Having been played by both men and women, golf and tennis immediately returned to popularity and of the two, the former was commended as the 'best game for women', demanding stout shoes, thick tweed skirts and long cardigans. Some even wore knickerbockers. These practical garments encapsulating the new freedoms accorded to women signalled an occasion when, according to Mary Hezlet, 'class distinctions were dropped'.1
Lavery's motif - the young woman golfer - was clearly emblematic since it prompted a second essay on the subject, painted at a different time of day with a lower horizon. Also titled The Golf Links, North Berwick (fig. 1), it passed to Lavery's dentist, Conrad Ackner.2
Both pictures acted as prototypes for North Berwick, the definitive large version of the subject, now known as Playing Golf at North Berwick, which was purchased by his other important Scottish patron, Nicol Paton Brown. In 1924 Brown donated the large canvas to the Western Club, Glasgow, from which it was sold in 1997.3 These three pictures are the only ones in the North Berwick 'golf' series that show a player driving off.
Confusion arose in the 1980s over the identity of the principal golfer, in this sub-set. It had been thought to represent Lady Astor, one of the keenest women golfers of the day, until the removal of an old and unnecessary lining canvas from the Ackner version, revealed Lavery's original inscription indicating that the figures seated on the left were Hazel Lavery and Asquith, (H.H. Asquith, former Liberal Prime Minister), with Alice in the centre (Alice Trudeau, Lavery's stepdaughter, later Mrs Alice Gwynn) and Jesse Ford with her husband, Sir Patrick Ford on the edge of the green on the right.4 In a note to the original vendors of the present work, Mrs Gwynn confirmed that she was indeed the elegant fifteen-year-old girl driving off.5 Written in old age, in a shaky hand, it reads as follows:
'You ask about the golfing picture I gave your parents, it was done in North Berwick Scotland, we went every autumn to stay there with Sir Patrick Ford, who was MP for Edinburgh at that time, they had a lovely house just beside the Golf Links called Westerdunes, my father meant to play golf, and relax, but he never did, and he sent for his paints the week after he arrived, and ask (sic) me to pose for a figure in the foreground, and the result in your picture was quite good, but, it must worry (?) serious golfer(s), because I was driving in the direction of other players, not seemingly safely far enough away, who could be in some danger, perhaps, [the] artist has 'Artistic license' just like poets, and such details as missdirected (sic) shots would not have worried him, What he was looking to portray was the best swing for a drive that I could produce, and on the whole the picture is [a] pleasant one on that lovely and famous links at North Berwick.
'I used to play with my Father, he was only a moderate player, impatient and always in a hurry, he said his golf was more like 'dismounted polo' and so it was, I was more seriously competitive, and did not enjoy when he beat me usually, mostly because he was always in such a hurry! Considering his age, against mine, the boots should have been on the other foot, don't you think, I have laughed about it since, but he was such a nice person, and I loved him dearly I seem to stay almost indecently healthy, in spite of being wheelchair bound, all best wishes to you and yours from Alice (Gwynn)'.
The present work was one of five golf pictures listed in the inventory of the contents of the artist's studio compiled in 1946 and one of two then entitled, The Golf Course, North Berwick.6 Since it differs from Playing Golf at North Berwick and the Ackner version in important ways it seems probable that this was Lavery's première idée, recording a moment in time that would later be orchestrated.
In 1935 Ford arranged an important Lavery retrospective exhibition at Dundee and wrote in the catalogue that 'his [Lavery's] experience and reputation are world-wide ... he tackles every subject from his own point of view'. Alterations to the mise-en-scène - moving Alice from left to right and significantly changing the palette - produce a new 'point of view', preserving the integrity of the vivid impression caught in the present work. Although Alice is lit from the west and the land around her is painted in muted tones of khaki and emerald, such details do not reduce the compositional strength and atmospheric quality of a composition painted with all the verve that Lavery evidently applied to the game itself. The wry comment of his Irish caddie, 'few can play like you', could indeed be borrowed to describe this classic image of golf played close to its point of origin.
1 M. Hezlet, 'Golf from a Woman's Point of View', The Lady's Realm, vol. 16, 1904, pp. 483-488.
2 K. McConkey, 'Sir John Lavery's The Dentist (Conrad Ackner and his Patient)', British Dental Journal, vol. 210, no. 2, 22 January 2011, pp. 81-85.
3 McConkey, 2010, p. 235, under note 6.
4 At the time of publication of McConkey's earlier Lavery monograph (Sir John Lavery, 1993 (Canongate), p. 146), it was thought that the figure represented Lady Astor.
5 As well as being an energetic teenage golfer, Alice, who later married into the McEnerys of Kilkenny, was a keen horsewoman and a combative tennis player - hence her remarks about her stepfather's golfing prowess.
6 The Tate Britain version had already left the studio by this date. Another version of The Golf Course, North Berwick was sold Sotheby's, 4 November 1992.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.