The appearance of Russian dancers at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in April 1910 caught London audiences unawares. In a programme that included Lily Hayes, the comedienne, Selbo, the club juggler, the Palace Girls and the performance in ‘Kinemacolor’ of the one-reeler, ‘Paris, the Gay City’, the headline act was the first English performance of the Imperial Russian Ballet, starring Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin, ‘Russia’s acknowledged greatest dancers’ (see A.Haskell, 'Introduction', Anna Pavlova, 1956 (exhibition catalogue, Museum of London), pl. 18). At this point, Pavlova was leaving Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to work as a solo performer and later that year, she would launch her own company. The thirty-five minute programme consisted of a series of short divertissements, dances drawn from her most famous ballets that demonstrated the range and depth of Pavlova’s abilities. When she danced the Autumn Bacchanal from Pepita’s The Seasons for instance, it was not simply, according to Michel Fokine, ‘Pavlova in a gay mood, it was gaiety itself' (ibid., p. 5). Ballet fever gripped the capital, and the shrewd Palace Theatre entrepreneurs booked her for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden for 1911 (Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, 1936 (Penguin, 1941, vol. 2), p. 196, for instance recalled the 'furore', and confessed to 'a feeling of being born again to a new glamorous world, with complete satisfaction for every aesthetic sense').
It was the anticipation of this event that brought Pavlova to John Lavery’s studio at 5 Cromwell Place, South Kensington. After the completion of her début season, he received a commission to paint her portrait for reproduction in colour as a supplement to the Illustrated London News. The editor’s choice was auspicious. It underlined the pre-eminence of a painter who had been extensively honoured throughout Europe and the United States with major canvases in national collections. Furthermore, Lavery had been selected that year to represent Great Britain in the Venice Biennale, with a solo exhibition of 53 works. Only at the Royal Academy, was he neglected. For his supporters in the press the evidence of ‘Burlington bumbledom’ could not be clearer (see K. McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010, pp. 107-8). He more than anyone would, in a brilliant sketch, catch the personality of a sitter, but being familiar with the wiles of famous actresses, he laid down strict conditions concerning punctuality for Pavlova’s sittings. These occurred in October 1910, when the dancer returned to London after a second season in New York. Sittings can have lasted no more than six weeks since Pavlova was booked for a provincial tour in November and the artist had planned his annual visit to Tangier for the early months of 1911. Despite her tight schedule however, he need not have been worried about unpredictable cancellations. The dancer appeared for every appointment and used the sittings as practice sessions, enacting the Dance Bacchanal in slow motion to assist him in obtaining the correct pose - with the result that in addition to the head study (fig 1), he was able to achieve much more - producing two striking full-lengths of Anna Pavlova as a Bacchante (Life, p. 171-73. The Illustrated London News commission (63.5 x 76.2 cm.), thought lost, has recently resurfaced in a Private Collection. The two versions of Anna Pavlova as a Bacchante are in Glasgow Museums and Cornell Fine Art Museum, Rollins College, Florida. One of these was shown at the International Society of Sculpture, Painters and Gravers in 1911). The publication of the Illustrated London News portrait coincided with the announcement that Lavery had, at last, been admitted to the Royal Academy.
Waiting in the hall on these occasions was a seven-year-old boy – Master Kenneth Clark – Lavery’s next sitter. The encounter made a deep and lasting impression on the future Director of the National Gallery and he later recalled,
'It [Lavery’s studio] seemed to me the most beautiful place I had ever seen, painted dark blue, with gold stars on the ceiling; and as I sat awaiting my turn, there was wafted into this fairy-tale room a vision of grace which no one who has seen it can forget – Pavlova. Again and again she fluttered across the parquet floor and then sank into it, down, down, as if she would languorously disappear beneath it. What luck for me! I was much less happy when she pranced around the studio as a Bacchante. It seemed profane to me (and to tell the truth) slightly vulgar. My father bought the sketch for the Bacchante, but we never liked it and gave it away to a cousin in Oregon. If only he could have bought the sketch for the dying swan' (Kenneth Clark, Self-Portrait, Another Part of the Wood, 1974 (Hamish Hamilton, 1985, ed.), p. 28. Clark's portrait, which remains in the family, was shown at the Paris Salon and described by the sitter as 'by no means bad'. The 'sketch' to which Clark refers has never surfaced).
Clark’s childhood memories favoured the ‘dying swan’, Lavery’s second Pavlova project. This divertissement showing the dancer, wearing the iconic costume designed for her by Leon Bakst, sinking elegantly to the floor - ‘as if she would disappear beneath it’ - would be the subject of his most important Academy canvas of 1912 and he hurried to complete studies for it (Pavlova's costume is now in the collection of the London Museum). Three of these are known, of which the present example is probably the first (the present canvas was later given as a gift to 'Mona', a friend or employee of the Laverys whose precise identity remains to be established). A second, an oval, shows Pavlova’s head angled in the position adopted in the Academy canvas, and a third, known as Hazel Lavery as Pavlova, shows her arms crossed, fingers ‘fluttering’, to suggest the movement of plumage.
As its title suggests, this latter work was probably completed only when the painter’s wife stood in for the dancer after the commencement of her next tour. John Singer Sargent, who visited the painter at this time, confirmed the ‘strange resemblance’ between Hazel Lavery and the ballerina and it was with her assistance that La Morte du Cygne: Anna Pavlova (fig 2) was completed and framed for dispatch to the Academy in the painter’s absence in Morocco (see Life, p. 173).
For all the graceful repose of the dying swan in Lavery’s canvas, the role was, as Haskell notes, physically demanding,
The Dying Swan has no great technical difficulty in one sense of the word. It is based on the pas de bourée . Pavlova used that pas de bourée to suggest the Swan’s gliding motion as no one has ever done. It was a great technical feat … (Haskell, 1956, p. 6).
It was Pavlova’s theatrical presence as a great artist that raised The Dying Swan to a higher realm. And because of its celebrity subject, the picture was, as The Athenaeum predicted, ‘popular’ at the Academy. But unlike Anna Pavlova as a Bacchante, it was judged as a portrait, rather than a portrayal of balletic abandon (see Anon., 'The Royal Academy', The Athenaeum, 4 May 1912, p. 508). Critical responses were lukewarm, although at least one reviewer declared La Morte du Cygne ‘daring’ and ‘beautiful’, in part because the dancer was so faithfully rendered in that moment of climactic pathos (unidentified cutting, Lady Lavery's scrapbook). As Haskell recalled in 1938, seven years after Pavlova’s death, ‘her face was not beautiful in a conventional sense; it was interesting and it was the perfect instrument for her art’. In the twenties it bore the ‘ravages’ of a life spent in continuous touring, yet ‘she could assume beauty at will …’, and on stage would still ‘appear … young and almost girlish’. This was ‘not the result of make-up … but artistry’ (see Arnold L Haskell, Ballet, History, Aesthetics, Ballets, Dancers, 1938 (Penguin ed. 1951), p. 102). It was this inner capacity that Lavery addressed as the busy ballerina posed for him in her Swan’s costume.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.