In the early weeks of 1920, Lavery realised that his days in Tangier were numbered. The funeral of his old friend, Kaid MacLean, and the enforced closure of the German Legation signalled the end of the old pre-war bonhomie that existed in the city’s expatriate communities, and Lavery had decided to sell his ‘house of the canon’, Dar-el-Midfah. Even before the war, friends had been persuading him to sample the South of France and in the spring of the following year he and his wife, Hazel, spent a month at the Eden-Grand Hotel at Cap d’Ail. During those weeks Lavery explored Monaco and Cap Ferrat, where he visited the Villa Sylvia and painted its splendid gardens (K. McConkey, Sir John Lavery, A Painter and his World, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 150-152). Here he made his first reconnaissance of the Salons Privées and encountered wealthy hivernants such as Patrick Donner who posed for the resplendent canvas of The Honeymoon (sold in these Rooms, 12 May 2006, lot 100).
However, these were of much less interest than the striking terrain - as Lavery wrote to his daughter, ‘you cannot imagine how beautiful the landscapes, gardens, villas and sea are - pictures at every turn’(Letter dated 6 March 1921, Private collection). In the beautiful sunlit inlets of Cap d’Ail, looking down into a blue bay and one of its secluded beaches – probably that known as ‘La Mala’ – he found one of his most striking subjects in The Little White Boats. Approached by a precipitous path from La Turbie, and fringed by limestone rocks, the calm surface of the water had him reaching for his deepest cobalt, while his eagle eye swooped down on the tiny dinghies, moored in the bay. It was to be one of his most abstract compositions.
On this steep overgrown path-way he was joined by his pupil, Winston Churchill (Churchill, a great lover of the Riviera would later be made honorary mayor of Cap d’Ail; P. Howarth, When the Riviera was Ours, 1977 (Century (ed.), 1988), p. 104). It is well-known that Churchill endorsed pictures such as The Little White Boats, but what is less appreciated is the role the picture played in the statesman’s own artistic development. The future Prime Minister stood close to Lavery as he worked on the picture on the edge of the precipitous overhang. And when Churchill stepped up to paint his version, Lavery stood back to observe him. As this was happening the light began to change, the tide, recede, and the surface of the sea near the shore broke into patches of pale emerald. Churchill’s painting, formerly known as Coast Scene near Cannes, can now be titled and dated more accurately (D. Coombs, Churchill, His Paintings, 1967, London, p. 204, no. 325, (illustrated), wherein dated c. 1935; also M. Soames, Winston Churchill, His Life as a Painter, 1990, London, p. 89, (illustrated, as 'Coastal Scene near Cannes').
While others are often advanced as Churchill’s mentors, Lavery was his first and essential master. And though he might fail to achieve the supreme subtlety of the Irish painter’s brush, he fully appreciated it. For an artist schooled in the Paris ateliers, an admirer of Japanese prints who was keenly aware of the possibilities of photography, The Little White Boats provides ample evidence of an eye undimmed by inherited landscape conventions. It appears to be breathed on to the canvas without correction, in a single sitting. The dexterity of brushstrokes describing the chalk cliffs and caves that fringe the sea, fully justifies Churchill’s enthusiasm. In his introduction to the catalogue of the Alpine Club Gallery show in 1921, Churchill wrote that sunlight, 'gay and pellucid and pleasurable on the Riviera' had been expressed 'in brilliant and beautiful colour with the ease of long mastery' (The Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, P.C., M.P., exhibition catalogue, Pictures of Morocco, The Riviera and other Scenes by Sir John Lavery R.A.: Portrait and Child Studies by Lady Lavery, London, Alpine Club Gallery, 1921, pp. 3-4).
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.