Before Instagram, before the #selfie, and even before the tagline: “Kodak moment” became synonymous with the capturing of ordinary or extraordinary moments for posterity, it was the artist who captured these moments, recording history, faces of the world around them in all different mediums.
Prior to the emergence of mass photography artists were often commissioned to paint portraits and document events. Lavery and Osborne were no exception. Living at a time of momentous change in society and with the ability to travel to broaden their knowledge of emergent painting styles, both of these artists captured history as it was made.
These days we are more likely to take a selfie and immediately post it to our social media platforms than to ever pose for a professional photographer but in the late 19th century a commissioned portrait was the norm for those who could afford it.
Portrait of Walter Clegg Stevenson MD
Days of sittings and months of painting would accumulate in a formal portrait that would hang in your home for all of your friends to admire.
Walter Clegg Stevenson, an eminent Dublin doctor who pioneered the use of radium for cancer treatment, was an ideal if not typical subject for Osborne at the time, as he was part of a Dublin society made up of scholars, doctors, academics and lawyers, to whom a commissioned portrait would have been commonplace.
This portrait style was in vogue at the time, giving the impression of an informal sketch. Sadly, this portrait commission which hangs in the RDS is thought to be the last finished painting by Osborne, completed in 1903.
A Windy Day
A holiday moment captured in a photograph takes seconds but this snapshot sketch would have taken hours, and perhaps even days of additions and layering.
Lavery had a house called Dar-el-Midfah near Tangier, Morocco which was within walking distance of the shore. It provided inspiration for and is the setting for many of Lavery’s Morocan seascapes. The colour profile of the painting, and many of the other seascapes, would have been incredibly novel at the time. The scene here shows one of his travelling companions – his teenage daughter, Eileen, or his German model, Mary Auras – enjoying a walk on the windswept beach.
It hits very contemporary notes and evokes the perfect pre-Kodak Moment.
Sir John Lavery and Walter Frederick Osborne were great exponents of the “Kodak Moment” capturing a fleeting look, a second in time and the small everyday moments experienced by all walks of life. They recorded and documented life in the late 19th and early 20th Century through their sketches and paintings.
The practice of Plein-Air or painting outside, contributed to the immediacy and snapshot nature of the work of both Lavery and Osborne. The painters who embraced plein-air were those who had practiced in the methods of sketching, they were adept at painting a quick snapshot of memory.
Their paintings however did not just capture the moment but they also had painterly framing, articulated mastery of technique and depth of field that draws the viewer in and places you directly in the scene.
On Suffolk Sands
On Suffolk Sands, painted before Osborne returned to Ireland to support his parents.
A quintessential seaside moment from the 19th Century, the painting also shows his commitment to the plein-air style, perfected during his time in Brittany.
Summer Afternoon, a sketch from Lavery’s time spent at the estate of the Fulton family Glen Estate in Scotland.
It shows elements of impressionism and is a demonstration of Lavery’s use of natural light in plein-air style.
It records a moment of leisure, when the woman steps away from the path to read a book.
Both Lavery and Osborne were influenced by similar masters, including Jules Bastien-Lepage and James McNeill Whistler and by many of the different artistic styles that emerged in the Victorian period such as Plein-air, Naturalism, and Impressionism.
However, Lavery and Osborne’s successes often came from a fusion of these styles. As the academic Dr Kathryn Milligan described during The Hunt Museum Symposium on Lavery & Osborne; both artists did not commit entirely to one style throughout their careers. They tended, like Bastien-Lepage, to “move between impressionistic vagueness and painstaking detail.”
For Osborne especially, his fusion of naturalistic style with the essence of impressionism was considered to be on the “cusp of perfection” shortly before he died. It was this fluidity between various styles that contributed to the success of both artists, especially their ability to adjust their style to the subject matter: from rural, everyday genre paintings to high society portraits. That being said, their commitment to the plein-air style is evident throughout their career.
1 Hunt Museum Summer Exhibition Lavery & Osborne Symposium 6 June 2019
“On looking back I see how stupid I was in attempting to compete with the camera.”Sir John Lavery, Life of a Painter, 1940, p.248
The Artist Recorder
Lavery and Osborne documented life on canvas during the late 19th and early 20th century. Their paintings were clear pictorial records of life at that time. In deference to Lavery’s obvious painting abilities, the quote above refers to his self-reflections on his time in Hollywood.
Following Hazel’s death in 1935, and after hearing from Alice about life of the movie stars in Hollywood, Lavery decided to travel there to paint the movie sets and stars. The trip resulted in some successful paintings such as Stars in Sunlight and the humorous self-portrait with Shirley Temple. Although, protesting otherwise, his painting Stars in Sunlight painted in 1936, is a perfect example of the painter as an artist recorder.
“Had I given myself three years instead of three weeks I might have made history, but I had not the time to spare for a new venture, in my eighties...the waiting about was too much for me.”Sir John Lavery, The Life of a Painter, 1940, p.258.
Stars in Sunlight
Stars In Sunlight features film stars Maureen O’Sullivan and Loretta Young reclining on a sun lounger in Los Angeles, Young would go on to win an Academy Award in 1948 for her role in The Farmer’s Daughter and O’Sullivan rose to prominence as Jane in a series of Tarzan films from 1932-1942.
In Stars in Sunlight, Lavery is recording a moment in time but also documenting two young woman on the tipping point to stardom.
The paintings of both Lavery and Osborne stand as visual documents, snapshots or moments in time. They expertly show in their colour, content and costume the period in which they were produced. For Lavery it was often a moment of historical significance: he documented apocalyptic events such as the upheaval and industrialism of London during World War I and with great sympathy, the death of Irish Nationalist hero Michael Collins “Love of Ireland”.
This image painted in 1919 shows women working in a munitions factory in Edinburgh: by 1917 more than 80% of the munitions being used by the British Army were being made by women affectionately known as “Munitionettes.”
Both Lavery & Osborne, had an ability to transfer their spotlight from subject matter and style to another without losing quality. Osborne demonstrated the ability to paint a young boy in peasant clothing with as much sensitivity as those from high society.
Similarly, Lavery often painted his models Bella Cullen and Mary Auras, with similar sympathy to even his own wife, Hazel. Likewise, Winston Churchill and his family were friends with John and Hazel Lavery. Lavery and Churchill painted together on many occasions and in reference to Mr. Churchill’s painting ability, Lavery states:
“had he chosen painting instead of statesmanship, I believe he would have been a great master with the brush”.(Lavery, 1940, p.182)
Mrs. Winston Churchill and her Daughter Sarah
This sketch shows an intimate moment between Mrs. Churchill and her daughter Sarah, the light flows onto the sitters from a window, highlighting their faces and their moment together.
The painter as documenter of sporting events was a common practice even in the late 19th and early 20th century, and Sir John Lavery recorded many sporting events, especially the new sport of Tennis during the late 19th century throughout his career, including the Ascot and Epsom horse races and as pictured here, a summer rowing competition by Maidenhead Rowing Club.
The bright colours present in the image, the spectator’s clothing and the green lawn, is typical of Lavery’s brighter and lighter style of the 1930s.
Osborne’s documentation of life in the late 19th century was from a slightly less exciting standpoint. In his works he often recorded ordinary, but no less significant, moments.
Works such as Cupboard Love where a young child is shown eating their breakfast at home, watched by their pet cat or works of personal family documentation: such as his portrait of younger sister Violet Osborne painting.
Portrait of Violet Osborne Painting
Walter Osborne’s younger sister Violet died during childbirth in the 1890s and in this small sketch-like work Osborne paints Violet with poise and grace, delicacy and care he took when painting his sister apparent even when her profile is mostly hidden from view.
Notwithstanding the differences in content, both artists excelled at capturing life as it happened, without embellishment or excess. Their role as documenters is forever visible through their canvases.
Capturing the Moment curates the paintings of Sir John Lavery and Walter Frederick Osborne to illustrate how both artists used their skills to document and capture the people, places and significant events of the late 19th and early 20th century.
From the well-known to the everyday, these two great Irish artists were effectively both the documenters and the social commentators of their day.