The Rambler 07/03/2003
WHEN I spotted a reference to 'the Scottish Irish Artist, Sir John Lavery' in this week's 'Sunday Post' I decided to reach for the fact sheet on Sir John which I compiled twenty two years ago. Here it is:
A former colleague of mine has let me peruse an interesting collection relating to the great Ulster artist Sir John Lavery, R.A.
These reveal that Lavery was born in a house at the corner of North Queen Street and Lancaster Street in Belfast where his father had a wine and spirit shop.
He endured conditions of dire poverty as a child, and his father, presumably in a desperate effort to better himself, decided to emigrate, alone, and to send for his wife and family later.
Sadly he perished with 386 other passengers of the ill-fated Pomona which went down off the Wexford coast "leaving her mizzen mast colours still flying above the water."
Born in 1856, Sir John was christened at St Patrick's RC Church, Donegall Street, Belfast, which now has a beautiful altar fresco donated by the artist, in memory of his father.
On the death of his father, Sir John was adopted by his uncle Richard Lavery, a Soldierstown farmer, and went to Magheralin National School from 'Trainview', Back-of-the-Wood, Moira.
He detested arithmetic, and it is recorded that he fled from school to Salcoats, where he got a job at £20 p.a. as a checker of railway wagons, which he was only able to hold down for a brief spell, until he was asked to make a monthly return!
He then replied to an advertisement for a lad good at drawing' and got a job as a re-toucher in a studio.
From these humble beginnings, he rose to become one of the greatest artists of his age. He was honoured by nearly every city in Europe, and received the Freedom of Belfast in 1930.
In his day he painted the Royal Family, including Queen Victoria, for the National Portrait Gallery. He was also elected president of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts.
In 1918, no doubt with the connivance of his great friend Winston Churchill, Lavery witnessed and painted the surrender of the German Fleet, disguised as a naval officer! "Punch" carried a caricature of Lavery on March 30th, 1927.
My friend has a copy of this caricature and also a photograph of the house in which Lavery was born, together with his autograph on a letterhead inscribed '5 Cromwell Place, London, 14th January, 1919."
Altogether, he has a fascinating collection relating to this great Belfast man who was in his day acclaimed Painter of the Century', but who is often erroneously claimed by the Scots.
Moira relatives of Sir John are understood to be in possession of some of his paintings.
The author of the description was described as a leading valuer in the field of art. I'll omit his name.
I have no quarrel with exponents of the Ulster-Scots culture, but we cannot allow Magheralin's most famous son to be pinched by the Scots.
In my young days, Sir John was a familiar figure around his native heath. He visited the Clenaghan homestead at Soldierstown regularly and in response to a friend of mine, who wrote to him for an autograph, he curtly responded: "By Maralin I presume you mean Magheralin, where I spent the happiest days of my life." I saw the original.
In my boyhood days, Seamus Clenaghan of Soldierstown, a kinsman of Sir John's used to take the great man around in a pony's trap.
Seamus married Kathleen Elmore, a member of a well-known Lisburn family.
Seamus's brother, Eddie, was taken to London and schooled in art by Sir John. Sadly he (Eddie) was cruelly murdered outside his Soldierstown shop by a drunken American GI in 1942.
Eddie was a daily visitor at my home up to and including the evening of his death, and often regaled us with stories of Sir John's eccentricities.
Sadly, all whom I have mentioned here have long since gone to their rest, but a lot of memorabilia remains locally, including the house at 'Trainview' Drumbane, Moira where Sir John grew up.
Maybe one day it will be made into a Lavery mini-museum and attract tourists?