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Sir John Lavery - A blue swimming pool at Cannes

Sir John Lavery

A blue swimming pool at Cannes

Oil on canvas laid down on board: 14.3(h) x 18.3(w) in / 36.2(h) x 46.4(w) cm
Signed lower right: J Lavery. Signed, dated and inscribed on the reverse: A BLUE SWIMMING POOL / A* CANNES / BY / JOHN LAVERY / 1930

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Belfast 1856 - 1941 Kilmaganny, County Kilkenny


A blue swimming pool at Cannes


Signed lower right: J Lavery. Signed, dated and inscribed on the reverse: A BLUE SWIMMING POOL / A* CANNES / BY / JOHN LAVERY / 1930

Oil on canvas laid down on board: 14 ¼ x 18 ¼ in / 36.2 x 46.4 cm

Frame size: 21 ¼ x 25 ¼ in / 54 x 64.1 cm

In a Regence style carved and gilded pastel frame



Oscar and Peter Johnson, London, c.1970s

Private collection, acquired from the above



In the winter of 1928-9 Sir John and Lady Lavery rented Villa l’Enchantement near Mougins in the south of France from Mrs Benjamin Guinness.[1] Although Lavery was happy there, his wife Hazel missed the social activity in Cannes – particularly that associated with the opulent Hotel Beau Site, where her daughter Alice was coached in tennis and competed in tournaments. The hotel manager, Mr Schmid, was keen to support the couple when he learned that service at l’Enchantement was lacking in refinement and there are reports that the Laverys’ Christmas Dinner was brought out to them by car from the hotel by three of its chefs.


As a result of this attention, the following year they booked a villa in the grounds of the hotel adjacent to its gardens and tennis courts for the winter season. A greetings card from Lavery to his cousin, indicates that he and Hazel were leaving on New Year’s Day, 1930 and staying until the end of March (fig.1).


Fig.1 Greetings card from Sir John and Lady Lavery, Winter 1929-30. Private collection

The house and pool are those represented in the present work, and here Lavery quickly established his studio and set to work on his picture of St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg (fig.2), a painting for which studies had been made in the previous summer.[2]


Fig 2 John Lavery, St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, 1929

(The National Pilgrimage of Ireland for a Thousand Years), 1930

Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin


The great irony was that this painting of a grey rain-swept Irish summer, destined for the Royal Academy in May, was painted in a sunlit studio with an uninterrupted view of the Isle Ste Marguerite in the bay of Cannes. From this hermitage, as Lavery pointed out in a letter to Thomas Bodkin, St Patrick had first expelled the vipers, before setting off on his mission to Ireland.[3]


While the great Irish picture progressed, Lavery produced smaller pictures in the grounds of the villa, the most valuable of which, since it records his house and pool, is the present work. It was well-placed to observe the world’s wealthy. Cannes had of course, been favoured by tourists since the days of Lord Brougham in the 1830s and as the century progressed, it rivalled Nice in popularity.[4] While Queen Victoria preferred the latter, her playboy son, later Edward VII, was a habitué of Cannes, and the English colony grew as a consequence.[5] As Captain Leslie Richardson noted in 1927, Cannes was ‘the playground…of the fashionable world of Europe. In no other Riviera resort will you see so many well-gowned women…it has an atmosphere of refined luxury that is found nowhere along the Riviera…Indeed, no man can claim to rank as a plutocrat who is without his floating palace in Cannes harbour.’[6]


It must be said however, that the plutocrats attracted Lavery and his wife much less than tennis stars and the round-the-world yachtsman, Alain Gerbault, whose portrait was painted here in the Beau Site villa.[7] At the same time the pool, with its uninterrupted view of the Esterels was an important attraction. As with the Lough Derg picture, sketches of swimmers and sunbathers were swiftly noted from the windows of the villa in preparation for a view of the pool taken at the opposite end to that of the present canvas (fig.s 3&4).



Fig.3 John Lavery, The blue swimming pool, Cannes, 1930, size unknown, unlocated

Fig.4 John Lavery, A blue swimming pool at Cannes, 1930, the present canvas


The main event of the Laverys’ Riviera stay in 1930 was Alice’s wedding in March at the ancient church of Notre Dame d’Espérance in the centre of Cannes. This was not without tension, as Hazel Lavery disapproved of her daughter’s choice of husband, an Irish stud farmer from Kilkenny, Jack McEnery. Being focussed on his work, Lavery took a much more sanguine view of the affair. Shortly after his arrival he had received a letter from Alfred S Moore in Belfast Art Gallery telling him that the city of his birth was conferring the honour of ‘Freedom of the City’ upon him.[8] Contact with his secretary, CR Chisman, in London, also brought news of further international survey exhibitions being planned by Joseph Duveen in which his work would feature. The business of an important Academician continued unabated.


Moments of relaxation on this busman’s holiday were rare, but if we can point to one – it is surely in Lavery’s painting of the present canvas. Save for quiet ripples, the busy pool has fallen silent, and the healthy young sunbathers of Alice’s generation have dispersed. Time then for limbering up with a splendid study of the house and its setting. Only as he works, does the painter note that his deliberations are observed by a girl in tennis whites at a window on the right. For the rest, it is simply light, lapping water, fragrant flowers and warm air.


Kenneth McConkey




Belfast 1856 - 1941 Kilmaganny, County Kilkenny


It has been claimed that Sir John Lavery belonged to the Glasgow School, the Ulster School, the Irish School and the British School, indicating the versatility and wide-ranging appeal of his artistic accomplishments. His works are greatly admired for his development of the aesthetic value of the sketch, in which each touch of the brush is left undisguised to create a vibrant and atmospheric affect.


Born in Belfast, he was orphaned in infancy and brought up by an uncle near Moira, and later, another relative in Ayrshire. As a teenager, Lavery was apprenticed to a Glasgow photographer, and during the late 1870s, attended classes at the Haldane Academy in Glasgow. He then trained at Heatherleys in London and in 1881, settled in Paris, where he studied at the Academie Julian and Atelier Colarossi; during this period he was influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage and painted in a plein-air and naturalist style.


Lavery returned to Glasgow in 1885 and became one of the leading members of the Glasgow School. He moved to London in 1896 and helped Whistler to found the International Society in 1898, of which he was a Vice-President until 1908. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1911 and helped Whistler to found the International Society in 1898, of which he was Vice-President until 1908. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1911 and became a full Academician in 1921. He was appointed Official War Artist to the Royal Navy in 1917, and was knighted the following year. Lavery travelled extensively during his career, visiting Morocco, Italy, Spain, Germany and Holland, and these visits inspired many of his works.


Following the death of his wife, Hazel, in 1935, Lavery set off for Hollywood with the idea of painting the 'stars'. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he was obliged to return and died at Kilmaganny in 1941.


[1] Kenneth McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010, (Atelier Books), p. 185; Sinéad McCoole, Hazel, A Life of Lady Lavery, 1880-1935, 1996 (The Lilliput Press), pp.157-9. Formerly the present work has been mistakenly ascribed to the preceding year, 1929. During conservation, the removal of backing from the canvas has revealed the artist’s inscription, clearly dating the work to the following year. The present author is grateful to Richard Green for obtaining this clarification.

[2] McConkey, 2010, pp.179-183.

[3] Letter 556, Lavery to Thomas Bodkin (c. January 1930), Trinity College Library, Dublin; quoted in Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery, 1856-1941, exh. cat., Ulster Museum and Fine Art Society, 1984, p.105.

[4] Robert Kanigel, High Season. How one French Riviera Town has seduced Travellers for Two Thousand Years, Viking, 2002, pp.108-9.

[5] Patrick Howarth, When the Riviera was Ours, 1977, Century Travellers edition, 1988, pp.74-9.

[6] Capt. Leslie Richardson, Things Seen on the Riviera, Seeley, Service & Co, 1927, p.56.

[7] The Lone Mariner, Alain Gerbault, 1930 (Private collection) was shown along with two sets of unfinished Bathing studies (unlocated), in the artist’s solo exhibition at P&D Colnaghi in 1931.

[8] Letter from Lavery on Beau Site headed paper to Alfred S Moore, dated 15th January 1930; Belfast City Library Archive Section.

Other Works By
Sir John Lavery:

Sir John Lavery - Hyde Park Corner, 29th November 1934 Sir John Lavery - A Southern Sea