Lady Lavery

Peter Symes

The most striking feature of the legal tender notes of the Irish Free State and the early issues of the Central Bank of Ireland is the portrait of Lady Lavery. While the portrait of Lady Lavery is well known, it was never intended that her image should be recognized on the Irish notes that circulated from 1928 until the late 1970s. The original intent was that the vignette on the notes should depict a typical Irish Cailín (Girl). However, the intention was lost and history records that an American lady adorns the notes. How did this happen?

            In 1921 the Irish Free State was established. After several years it was decided to reform the currency issued in Ireland as, until that time, banknotes were issued by the commercial banks—as they are today in Scotland and Northern Ireland. These notes were not legal tender, they were simply promises to pay by the banks. In 1927 it was decided to introduce legal tender notes and to reform the notes issued by the banks, which were to become ‘The Consolidated Banknotes’. (The Consolidated Banknotes became known as the ‘Ploughman’ notes, because of the ploughman illustrated on the front of the notes.) The committee chosen to advise on the design of both the Legal Tender Notes and the Consolidated Banknotes was Thomas Bodkin, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dermod O’Brien, President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, and Lucius O’Callaghan, a former Director of the National Gallery.

            In late 1927 the ‘Note Committee’ petitioned Sir John Lavery to provide a portrait of an archetypical Irish Cailín to adorn the notes. The choice of Sir John Lavery (1856 – 1941) to provide the portrait was no accident. Born in Belfast, by the 1920s Lavery had become the greatest contemporary portrait painter in Ireland. He had studied in Glasgow, London and Paris, and worked throughout the continent and in England. His works had been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Louvre, and other European galleries. In 1921 he was elected to the Royal Academy and in the late 1920s he was at the height of his success.

            As the pre-eminent Irish portrait artist, he was well known to members of the ‘Note Committee’. Indeed, in August 1927, Lavery had written to Thomas Bodkin, indicating a desire to donate thirty of his works to the National Portrait Gallery in Dublin. Shortly after this communication, the ‘Note Committee’ approached Lavery to paint the Cailín. In a letter to Bodkin dated 30 December 1927, Lavery states that the Committee asked ‘that I should design a head for them, preferably I take it, one of my wife’ to be used on the new Irish currency. Lady Lavery had written to Bodkin a few days earlier, evidently in reply to his proposal, in the following terms:

                        ‘I really feel that you are too kind and generous when you suggest that my humble head should figure on the note, and you know I said from the first that I thought it wildly improbable, unlikely, impractical, unpopular, impossible that any committee would fall in with such a suggestion. Indeed apart from anything else I think a classic head, some Queen of Ireland, Maeve, perhaps would be best, someone robust and noble and fitted for coinage reproduction ...’

(Interestingly, when Lady Lavery’s image was finally removed from the notes, Queen Maeve, or Medb, was depicted on the one-pound note.)

            Hazel, Lady Lavery (1880 – 1935) was Sir John’s second wife, his first wife having died shortly after giving birth to their daughter. Lady Lavery was the daughter of an American industrialist, Edward Jenner Martyn of Chicago, and her marriage to Lavery was also her second marriage, being the widow of Dr. Edward Livingstone Trudeau of New York. Lavery often acknowledged the contribution of his wife to his career. She mixed easily in the upper echelons of society and Lavery believed that many of his commissions were due to his wife. She was known to chat with the subjects of her husband’s portraits during their sittings.

            In preparing the portrait for the note, it was Lavery’s intention to produce a painting of Cathleen ni Houlihan, the legendary heroine who had been made popular by William Butler Yeats. Interestingly, Lavery was known to have in his possession at his death a portrait by Sean Keating, a young Irish artist, which was titled ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’. It is possible that ownership of this painting predated his commission by the Note Committee and this work may have influenced his portrait.

            Lavery worked on his portrait over Christmas 1927 and evidently sent a photograph of the painting to the Note Committee. However, he was unhappy with the portrait and commenced alterations. Lady Lavery wote to Thomas Bodkin at the end of February:

                        ‘... John greatly improved the “note” head and altered the size by reducing the drapery around the head and making it less clumsy about the chin: he also accentuated certain things about the face, and had it rephotographed. They received instructions from him to use their latest photograph and to reproduce the alterations he had made in their final design ...”

            The final portrait shows ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ leaning on a Cláirseach (Irish harp), supporting her chin in her hand. She is dressed in simple Irish clothing, with the lakes and mountains of Ireland in the background. According to Kenneth McConkey, in his book Sir John Lavery, the portrait is not typical of Lavery’s work. McConkey states ‘... it lacks the active paint surface which characterises the immediacy of his style. Its colours are dull and muted and in general terms, the work has something of a mural like quality ... These stylistic devices obviously made it easier for the work to be photographed and then engraved’. The original portrait of Lady Lavery, which is a mirror image of the portraits on the notes, is today in the possession of the Central Bank of Ireland.

            As it transpires, there are two portraits of ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ that appear on the banknotes. Sir John’s complete half-length portrait, with Lady Lavery supporting her chin in her hand, appears on the 10-, 20-, 50- and 100-pound notes. A smaller portrait of Lady Lavery’s head and shoulders, without her hand on her chin, appears on the 10-shilling, 1- and 5-pound notes. It is believed that the smaller portrait was adapted from Lavery’s lager portrait by Mr. John Harrison, the chief portrait engraver of Waterlow and Sons Limited, the manufacturers of the notes.

            It is intriguing that the portrait on the Irish banknotes is now universally acknowledged as ‘Lady Lavery’ whenever the notes are discussed. The depiction of an American on an Irish note is a far cry from the object of the Currency Commission, which requested an archetypical Irish girl, and perhaps further still from the Irish heroine, Cathleen ni Houlihan, that Sir John Lavery intended to depict. However, from the correspondence to Thomas Bodkin by Lavery and his wife, it is possible to deduce that Bodkin always desired Lady Lavery’s image on the notes, despite the official request for the Cailín.

This article was completed in March 2003
© Peter Symes