'In February 1889, the artist community in Scotland held meetings in Glasgow and Edinburgh to form the Scottish Artists' Benevolent Association. Based upon the work of the Artists' Benevolent Fund in London, the new charity hoped to support aged and impoverished members of the profession. All of the important Scottish painters and sculptors supported the scheme to raise a capital fund of £10,000, from which grants and pensions could be given. Under the patronage of HRH Princess Louise, committees were formed and donations received. The most important fundraising occasion was the Grand Costume Ball, to be staged by the members of Glasgow Art Club at St. Andrews Halls, Granville Street, Glasgow on 29 November 1889. Following a series of widely reported 'masque' parties, held by the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House in London, the idea of the fancy dress ball had returned to popularity.
However no one could have predicted the success of the Glasgow event. Nine hundred and sixty seven ladies and gentlemen, including the Lord Provost and leaders of the business and professional communities were present. The ball was carefully staged, with a triumphal entrance complete with crimson carpet. Guests first entered the Octagon Hall which was hung with thirty dance programmes painted by members of the club. Lavery's canvas, which illustrates a lady playing a piano, lists nineteen waltzes, reels and polkas (Collection Glasgow Art Club; see K. McConkey, Sir John Lavery, Edinburgh, 1993, fig. 66). The evening began with a pageant in which members of the Art Club, dressed as the great artists of the past, processed into the hall and took up positions on the stage in a tableau vivant of Paul Delaroche's celebrated Hemicycle of the Fine Arts at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. 'The effect', we are told, 'was exceedingly artistic'. Members of the Glasgow School were conspicuous - Edward Arthur Walton as Hokusai, James Paterson as Botticelli, Lavery as Rembrandt, Grosvenor Thomas as Bellini, and James Guthrie as the great classical painter, Apelles. Other guests went as an assortment of gypsies, moors, matadors and Greek maidens. There was a Horatio, a Hans Holbein and a Robin Hood. One deeply dysfunctional family, the Cargills of Park Terrace, Glasgow, went as a 'Kurd chief', 'a court lady from the reign of Louis XVI', an 'Arab' and 'Night'. After the tableau vivant, an 'efficient orchestra under the conductorship of Herr Iff' took the stage and the ball commenced. At the outset '... dancing was somewhat difficult owing to the crowded state of the hall', but everyone was good-humoured. Half-way through there was a 'carefully rehearsed' minuet which contrasted with the 'vigour and enthusiasm of the Scotch Reel'.
The room to the right of the ballroom was set up as an artist's studio, with a sign advertising, 'a fresh old-master at work every half hour', and here, throughout the evening, Lavery and others made sketches of the guests. A photograph shows Lavery in action, at the easel, at the centre of the artist group (see K. McConkey, 1993, p. 67). The present canvas, identified by its second signature, 'REMBRANDT', is one of these. Although, up to this point, it has not been possible to identify the sitter from the costume, a number of alternatives exist. This being the centenary year of the French Revolution, several guests went to the ball dressed as 'revolutionaries' or in eighteenth century French Court costume. For the most part the revolutionaries were women and the courtiers were men. Is the sitter a young woman in male costume, wearing stage make-up? The '1789' theory is weakened however, by the fact that the rosette on the sitter's jacket is not in revolutionary colours. If this proposed identity is discarded there are a number of matadors and toreadors, several characters from unidentified or obscure literary sources, and, perhaps most likely of all, a 'West Indian Planter', to fall back on. One of Lavery's fellow artists, George Pirie, in his Impressions (untraced), a canvas showing miscellaneous studies, includes a figure with a tail coat and stick, although other details suggest that this is a different character.
One other painting produced at the ball, Hokusai and the Butterfly (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; see K. McConkey, 1993, fig. 68) is known. This vivid double portrait of Walton and his girlfriend, Helen Law, commemorates their engagement, which was announced on the occasion. Like the present work, it is lightly drawn with the point of a sable brush and, although blocked in swiftly in colour, is, for the most part, left incomplete. Both pictures exemplify the suggestiveness and economy of Lavery's oil sketching style. With a few light strokes, the whole figure is brilliantly conveyed.
When the event was concluded, the profit, £1317, was assigned to the Scottish Artists' Benevolent Association. Glasgow Art Club produced a large 'souvenir' volume illustrating a number of sketches by the resident artists. This adds three untraced works to the Lavery compliment for the evening - A Milkmaid, and A Corner of the Ballroom, which may have been painted afterwards from photographs. One further watercolour by James Paterson Rembrandt painting the Lily (untraced), shows him painting what was probably a portrait of Eva Fulton'.
(Kenneth McConkey, private correspondence, August 2000).
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.