At first sight John Lavery’s study of a laundress looking quizzically at a friendly blackbird seems uncontroversial. The picture is painted in the modern rural naturalist manner which he had gone to Paris to study at the end of 1881 and the blond colouring of the sunlit upper portion of the garden scene, with its freedom of handling, indicate a young painter with a growing awareness of Impressionism. Why then should such an earnest enterprise be given a title from a child’s nursery rhyme? The narrative – ‘down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose’ – may be suitable for a vastly popular Randolph Caldecott Picture Book (fig. 1) but surely not for a painting destined for exhibition. Yet in 1883 the young painter was precariously poised between past and present and his direction was uncertain. Percy Jacomb Hood, who remembered him at this time in the Paris ateliers, recalled that Lavery, with no family or financial safety-net, had to adapt his classroom studies into things that were instantly saleable. This equally applied when he explored the environs of the city in search of subject matter. On one of these occasions, following the summer séjour at the Julian and Colarossi ateliers, he ventured south to an artists’ colony where he found the model for the present picture.
The laundress, if we believe the title, was a maid attached to the palace, performing her chores while ‘the king was in his counting house’ and ‘the queen was in the garden’. However, this garden was really that of one of the two hotels at Grez-sur-Loing, and in its congenial setting, with other more experienced painters around, he sought to work out the technical problems of painting en plein air, with broad square brushes. There were complex issues of spatial recession, the human form, light, shade, and the notation of local colour as well as composition, to address. In the present instance, the use of a foreground motif – the bird - on an upright double square format was one that he considered so successful he would redeploy it two years later in Beg Sir! (fig. 2).
More generally, the theme of laundresses was treated in La Laveuse, a painting of a washerwoman descending a flight of steps to the river at Grez. Such scenes from the repertoire of J-F Millet and currently being essayed by painters as diverse as Léon Lhermitte and the American, Daniel Ridgway Knight, typified French rural life. They had special significance at Grez where cabins – lavoirs - lining the Loing had already been brilliantly painted by Lavery’s predecessor in the artists’ colony, Arthur Melville. They were also dignified with an important literary precedent in Robert Louis Stevenson’s paean to the beauties of the village in ‘Forest Notes’. Here Stevenson had eulogised the peasant women who ‘…wash and wash all day among the fish and waterlilies’. ‘It seems’, he declared ‘as if linen washed there should be specially cool and sweet …’ Such romantic allusions sustained the Grez idyll. Simple daily domestic tasks of washing and drying had more than ordinary significance.
At Grez, Lavery was particularly impressed by the mercurial Louis Welden Hawkins, a painter who developed the ingenious ploy of touring the dealers posing as a wealthy collector, and asking for his own work. At this time Hawkins was engaged on sombre canvases showing a girl contemplating a dead bird (fig 3).
Birds had long romantic associations in ‘song of the lark’ subject matter tackled by Millet and Jules Breton. Latterly the revered Jules Bastien-Lepage had likened his cowherd to a hedge warbler in Pauvre Fauvette 1881 (Glasgow Museums). There were numerous precedents, but the closest must surely be Hawkins’s picture and its simple woodland encounter may well have suggested the present more light-hearted canvas. As is clear from the comparison, Lavery’s painting is more atmospheric, and unlike the Hawkins, it is likely to have been painted entirely on the spot. When he exhibited the work at Paisley at the end of 1883, it was a ‘thesis picture’, on a par with those of the Glasgow Boys – Edward Arthur Walton, James Guthrie and Melville.
The washerwoman theme was of course to be revisited in 1884 when Lavery spent most of the year at Grez and painted On the Loing, An Afternoon Chat (fig. 4), one of his most celebrated pictures.
In this the washerwoman and her daughter are seen conversing with a passing boatman. The barrow is loaded with sheets, kept damp in the afternoon sun with the help of a large watering can. Lavery claimed that this painting was his response to Bastien-Lepage’s Jean d’Arc écoutant les Voix 1880 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and while this may apply to the mise-en-scène, the picture rejects all literary or historical references – apart from Stevenson. The degree to which the present work informed this larger canvas is clear. We move from a scrubby foreground to a lush green middle distance beyond which is the whitewashed wall surmounted by red pantiles – a familiar feature of the gardens at Grez. In one important respect, however, the pictures differ and this is in the sunlit sward that stretches from the houses to the riverbank. Lavery’s palette at this point moves to a higher key and he tempts us with thoughts of Impressionism – defined as a set of naturalistic effects awaiting further exploration in 1884 when he produced the extraordinary and experimental ‘An Impression dans la Sous Bois’, (sold Christie’s, London, 10 May 2007, lot 116) . Like the present canvas, this too was preoccupied with stagecraft, and the degree to which figures might move in and out of dappled shade, creating spatial ambiguity. At Grez in what Stevenson called ‘the primeval out-of-doors’ the young painter may be preoccupied with studies, but unbeknownst to him, he absorbs ‘the incommunicable thrill of things’. This ‘poetry of life and earth’, with arrival of an inquisitive blackbird, is what brings the inconsequential everyday task of ‘hanging out the clothes’ to life.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.
1 Caldecott’s Picture Book was the latest to address the popular nursery rhyme. Walter Crane had produced two earlier versions
in 1865 and 1866 respectively.
2 Percy Jacomb Hood, With Brush and Pencil, 1925 (John Murray), p. 24; quoted in McConkey 2010, p. 17.
3 Although by 1880 Sing a Song of Sixpence had become a popular children’s song, it appears to have originated at the time of the ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’ (1820) in which two dozen conspirators attempting to blow up parliament, were rounded up.
4 Beg Sir! (unlocated) was shown at the Royal Academy in 1886; for further reference see McConkey 2010, p. 31.
5 McConkey 2010, p. 213, note 98; this picture passed through the Fine Art Society, London in the 1970s and is illustrated in McConkey 1993, p. 32 (fig. 26).
6 Kenneth McConkey and Charlotte Topsfield, Arthur Melville, Adventures in Colour, 2015, (exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Scotland), p. 34.
7 Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Forest Notes’, The Cornhill Magazine, 1876, p. 553.
8 John Lavery, The Life of a Painter, 1940 (Cassell), pp. 54-55.
9 Lucas Bonekamp, Louis Welden Hawkins, 1849-1910, 1993 (exhibition catalogue, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), p. 30, illustrates Young Girl with Bird, c. 1882, in addition to fig.3.
10 For fuller discussion see McConkey 2010, pp. 26-28.
11 Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Fontainebleau: Village Communities of Painters’, The Magazine of Art, 1884, p. 345.