There is a supreme irony in the fact that indolent tourists, placed before scenes of commanding beauty should fail to react. Lavery's well-heeled visitors to the Riviera in 1921 we are led to believe, are on honeymoon. But they are self-absorbed. The man has read the daily paper and has picked up a journal, while his female companion turns away from the scene. A broad-rimmed lilac hat protects her complexion and conceals her identity. More than any artist of his generation, John Lavery could catch a moment of ennui and uncover its inner theatrical tension - which the splendid scenery of the azure coast cannot assuage.
In 1921 the Laverys discovered the Riviera. It is likely that they were encouraged in this by friends such as Winston Churchill.1 Long fashionable with the British aristocracy, the south of France opened to tourists after Nice was ceded by Sardinia-Piedmont to Napoleon III in 1860. The rattachement was consolidated by the French Emperor with the reward of a railway, linking Nice to the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée line which had reached Marseilles a few years earlier.2 Initial efforts by the new government to regenerate the port of Nice and the local industries failed in favour of tourism. One wry French observer remarked that for the indigenous Savoyards and Ligurians 'the business of fleecing the English' was more immediately appealing than cultivating jasmine and tuberoses' for the perfume factory at Grasse.3 Land prices shot up and by the turn of the 20th Century hotels and villas along with shops selling luxury goods were the main economy. Initially Nice, Villefranche, Beaulieu and Cap Ferrat served British, American and Russian winter visitors dubbed hivernants by the local populace. The aged Queen Victoria graced the palatial Excelsior Regina Hotel at Cimiez with her presence in the late 1890s, while Edwardian plutocrats, friends of the Prince of Wales, either moored luxury yachts or established villas in the local resorts.4 Such was the scale of the expansion that by 1900 a summer season had emerged and Nice was open for business throughout the year. Despite the competition from Alpine resorts around 1910, the Riveria grew in popularity, visitor numbers increased and the roads, formerly dirt-tracks into the hills, began to experience the first traffic-jams. In these circumstances, the rich, depicted by Lavery, could only retreat to their balconies and verandahs overlooking the sea at Cap Ferrat.
The man in The Honeymoon has recently been identified as Ossian Donner (figs. 1 and 2, 1866-1957) and his wife, Violet Marion McHutcheon.5 Donner, born in Helenski, was the son of Professor Otto Donner, the Finnish Minister of Education under the Tsarist administration.6 In his twenties, Ossian Donner studied German in Dresden where he met Violet Marion McHutchen, a young music student from Edinburgh. They were married in the early 1890s. On his wife's advice, Donner commissioned the Scottish architect R.S. Lorimer in 1901, to design his house in Helsinki.7 Violet Donner was well connected in artistic circles in Scotland through her uncle, the painter Patrick William Adam.8
Donner went on to found De Förenade Yllefabrikerna, a textile company at Hyvinkää. However, as a wealthy industrilist, he, his wife and family were obliged to flee his native land at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution on passports supplied by the British Consul. His son recounts his mother's 'heart of a lion' when she confronted the Red Guards in English, in a commanding tone.9 From Stockholm and London, Ossian Donner raised funds for Finnish freedom fighters and after the declaration of independence he was appointed first Finnish Ambassador to the Court of St James in 1919. Through his good offices, the fledgling Finnish state was recognized and protected - receiving annual visits by the British fleet in the 1920s. Donner also represented Finland at the League of Nations. However, when in 1926 he resigned from both ambassadorial positions, he decided to settle permanently in England, eventually purchasing Hurstbourne Park in 1936.10
Lavery is likely to have encountered the Donners on his visit to Ardilea, the home of Patrick Adam, immediately after the Great War.11 Thereafter Donner and Lavery met again on the Riviera where The Honeymoon was painted. Mystery still surrounds the title of the picture, since the Donners had been married for over twenty years and their daughter, Stella, would have been twenty-six at the time the painting was produced.12 If not a recent marriage, the 'honeymoon' could simply refer to a celebratory holiday following the family's safe arrival in London and Donner's new diplomatic career.13 During the twenties, he regularly rented a villa and entertained important figures frm the world of music and the arts, including the great composer, Jean Sibelius.14
The setting which has not been identified, is likely to be the balcony of the Villa Sylvia, where Lavery painted in 1920-1. This Palladian-style house was constructed in the early years of the century by Mr and Mrs Ralph Curtis of Boston, the couple who appear in the background of John Singer Sargent's An Interior in Venice, 1899 (Royal Academy of Arts).15 Lavery painted several views of the gardens and villas on Cap Ferrat, including two views of the garden of Villa Sylvia and one showing its white classical porticoes.16 A separate study of the upper portion of the present work (fig. 3) was also painted at this time.17 These and other canvases of the early months of 1921 indicate the vitality of Lavery's response to the new stimulus which the Riviera provided.
More than any other painting, however, The Honeymoon illustrates what we have come to think of as the Riviera lifestyle - a world of indolence and sensual delight epitomized by the canvases of Henri Matisse and the Fauves. After the war, Nice and its environs attracted painters, designers and literati from all over Europe, and some, like Lavery, were drawn by its glittering social life. Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Somerset Maugham and many other luminaries stayed in the area in the early twenties. For the lotus-eaters who patronized them - finaciers and industrialists - the merriment of the moment was a powerful antidote in unstable times. Lavery expressed some of this by declaring that his work as an Official War Artist could not hope to express the depth of horror of the destruction. He could more accurately realize the abstract beauties of the scene before his eyes, and the nuances within human relationships - the hubris and ennui. Early in his career, in A Grey Summer's Day, Grez, 1883 (private collection), there is for instance the hint of tension between the figures in a garden on the river Loing, and this delicacy of observation runs through many of his portraits and figure compositions of the intervening years. Figures on rooftops or promontories gazing out over landscape or the sea, were a favourite motif - found for example in On board a 'P&O', 1891 (private collection) and Evening, Tangier, 1907 (fig. 4).
Symbolically, in 1921, the people in Lavery's Honeymoon turn away from the Corniche. War, revolution and their consequences had added a new and unnerving dimension to the life of the mind and although it comes three years before F. Scott Fitzgerald's magisterial Tender is the Night, The Honeymoon anticipates something of its sense of futility, played out in paradise. It was however, the beauty of coastline that shone through this and other Lavery landscapes in 1921 and drew from Churchill a rich passage of description,
He shows us sunlight in all its variety ... gay and pellucid and pleasurable on the Rivera ... We are presented with the true integrity of effect. And this flash is expressed in brilliant and beautiful colour with the ease of long mastery.18
1 Churchill had visited the Riviera in 1913, was a regular guest of the Laverys during the war - his portrait was painted in 1915 - and at this time the artist was teaching him to paint, while they discussed Irish politics. Furthermore Churchill wrote the Foreword to the catalogue of Pictures of Morocco, The Riviera and other Scenes, Lavery's joint exhibition with Hazel Lavery at the Alpine Club Gallery in 1921, at which the present picture was shown for the first time.
2 R. Kanigel, High Season, How one French Riviera Town has seduced Travellers for Two Thousand Years, New York, 2002, p. 98.
3 Kanigel, (ibid), p. 107.
4 Kanigel, (ibid), pp.130-2; see also Guide to The Riviera from Hyères to Viareggio, East Grinstead, circa c. 1930, p. 123; see also Capt. L. Richardson, Things Seen on the Riviera, London, 1927.
5 Private information supplied to Christie's, January 2006.
6 See www.finemb.org.uk/doc/kuvat/ambassadors. See also Patrick Donner, Crusade, A Life against the Calamitous Twentieth Century, Nottingham, 1984, p. 14-16. The Donners had two children, Stella, (b. 1895), later a noted mezzo-soprano, and Patrick (1904-1988).
7 Fireplaces and other fittings were acquired for the house in Scotland. After it became clear that the family would never return, it was sold in 1931 to the Svenska Klubben association and is now partly a restaurant and clubhouse.
8 Adam visited Helsinki for two months in 1901, presumably to see the new house. Adam's picture of The Harbour at Helsingfors was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1902. For futher reference see P. J. Ford, Interior Paintings by Patrick W Adam RSA, Glasgow, 1920, p. 40.
9 Donner, (op. cit), p. 30. Although he was only fourteen at the time, Patrick Donner had witnessed the Russian naval mutiny which started the revolution. On one occasion returning home in boy scout uniform he was attacked by a Russian sailor (pp. 26-7). Thereafter his father ordered the family to pack.
10 Donner, (ibid), p. 184. By this stage, Patrick Donner had read English at Oxford, successfully fought the Tory marginal of West Islington in the 1931 election and was rewarded with the safe seat of Basingstoke in 1935.
11 Lavery painted two portraits of Adam in 1919, one showing him at work in his studio. A garden scene, with members of the Adam family is also known. It is not known precisely when Adam and Lavery met. An earlier work, Mrs Adam at Dinner, 1890 (K. McConkey, op. cit, p. 69) indicates that the pair were in contact by this date.
12 According to Patrick Donner, his mother was small in stature - being only 5 feet one inch tall.
13 Stella Donner was studying and performing in Milan in the 1920s. Lavery's portrait of her reamins untraced.
14 These include the composer, Sibelius, and the painter Oswald Birley, see Donner, op. cit, pp. 37- 9.
15 For further reference see R. Ormond and E. Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent, Portraits of the 1890s, Yale, 2002, pp. 154-5
16 These are Spring in a Riviera Garden (sold Whyte's Dublin, 29 November 2005) and The Garden, Villa Sylvia, Cap Ferrat, (Ulster Museum, Belfast).
17 This work, entitled Coast Scene, South of France, c. 1930 was exhibited in Sir John Lavery 1856-1941, nol 43. Its present whereabouts are unknown, as are the reasons for dating it to 1930.
18 Rt. Hon. Winston S Churchill PC, MP, 'Foreword', Pictures of Morocco, the Riviera and other scenes by Sir John Lavery RA - Portrait and Child Studies by Lady Lavery 1921 (exhibition catalogue, Alpine Club Gallery, London), pp. 3-4.