The Ordinary & the Extraordinary

Every second, millions of people take photographs of ordinary and extraordinary events. Our friends gathered together, our meals and pets but also royal weddings, international conflicts, natural disasters and sporting events. In the late 19th, early 20th Century cameras were not widely available so such moments were depicted by artists.

Both John Lavery and Walter Osborne were incredibly skilled at memorising and transcribing the fleeting moment to the canvas. Their recording of everyday life was extensive. From moments of leisure of society classes and stylish interiors, to the working lives of the poor. They also captured the new such as new sports, new styles of dress, new politics and even new nations.

Michael Collins, “Love of Ireland” | Sir John Lavery | Hugh Lane Gallery | PD

A fledgling country’s past and future contained in single canvas.  Michael Collins (16 October 1890 – 22 August 1922) was an Irish revolutionary, soldier and politician who was a leading figure in the early-20th-century Irish struggle for independence.

He was Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State from January 1922 until his assassination in August 1922.

Nowadays it would be extraordinary to paint someone in death, but to Lavery it was natural.  

He would go on to paint his wife, Hazel, on her sickbed and ultimately her coffin in 1935.

The Ordinary

Little Boy Asleep | Walter Osborne | 1887 | Private Collection, courtesy Pyms Gallery, London | PD

This beautiful observation is a classic snapshot of a sleeping child.  It reflects that wish to preserve the innocence in our minds eye.

An ordinary, everyday moment, brought to life with charm and clever use of colour notes, where the splash of red/brown on the boys trouser leg in the foreground tones down the dominance of the wall.  

Throughout their careers both artists were proficient at using their talents to document their period of history. Osborne, a reserved, family orientated figure, much happier in his studio than at large society parties, concentrated more on the ordinary moments of daily life. His subjects weren’t royalty but his exemplary skill as a painter translated the ordinary into something engaging. His attention to detail transformed the everyday into the noteworthy.

Walter Osborne inspires emotion with his paintings of children, humour with his portraits of family pets and quiet sympathy for the poor and working class that so often feature in his work.  This is especially evident in his paintings of children at play. He captures the unguarded moment, the unposed child.

Following the death of his sister during childbirth, Osborne returned to Dublin to help his parents raise his infant niece, Violet Stockley. Violet and the peaceful moments of her childhood were a continuous inspiration for Osborne’s work.

The Doll’s School | Walter Osborne | National Gallery of Ireland | NC-NoC

In this sketch The Doll’s School, Violet sits on her bed playing with her dolls, their bright costumes adding colour to an otherwise muted palette.

Osborne was adept at evoking the act of play.

A motif of Osborne’s career is the painting of children and their pets. Despite the influence of his father William Osborne, who was a relatively well-known animal painter, Walter avoided the sentimentality that might otherwise attach to such subject matter. Osborne’s ability to combine realism and impressionism gives the character of a child and/or a pet without the scene becoming mawkish.

Boy with Pet Dog | Walter Osborne| c1895 | Private Collection courtesy Pyms Gallery, London | NC-NoC

This painting Boy with Pet Dog shows off his skill in this area.

The natural style of the boy and the dog are complemented by the more impressionistic style of the back and foregrounds. This painting perfectly captures the interaction, the complete attention of the dog, the slight teasing of the boy with the realism of a camera.

A Boy with His Dog | Walter Osborne | 1898 | Private Collection, courtesy Pym’s Gallery, London | NC-NoC

Some of Osborne’s most charming portraits are those of children and their pets.  His artfully casual composition can be seen in this painting.

The little boy is wearing an apron, which might indicate him to be a working class Dubliner

Lavery also recorded the ordinary. He constantly sketched and was never without his pochade paintbox. Catching the passing moment or an arresting scene. His family often provided the subject matter. As well as his wife, his stepdaughter Alice features in many of his paintings.

Alice | Sir John Lavery | 1919 | Ulster Museum | NC-NoC

This painting depicts Hazel Lavery’s daughter Alice. She often appears with her mother, as a younger child, in paintings set in Tangier and London. The chair, is frequently used as a prop in Lavery portraits.

This informal portrait, was executed in Lavery’s studio, it features a black blind that was pulled up from the bottom of the window in order to control the flow of light.

Lavery was often commissioned to paint society family portraits, and during the time he spent with the families he often painted more informal sketches of their young children at leisure.

The Chess Players | Sir John Lavery | 1929 | Tate | CC-BY-NC-ND 

This painting, The Chess Players catches the game concentration of the Hon. Margaret and the Hon. Rosemary Scott-Ellis, daughters of the 8th Baron Howard de Walden.

The interiors, the clothes and the hairstyles illustrate the fashion of the time. The presence of the colour picture book demonstrates how colour printing had become commonplace.

Equally he would catch a glance. Similar to Sewing in the Shade (seen in the introduction to this Exhibition), an early painting by Lavery, The Maid was in the Garden Hanging out the Clothes shows Lavery incorporating impressionist square brush techniques into his plein-air painting.

The Maid was in the Garden Hanging out the Clothes | Sir John Lavery | 1883 | Private Collection | PD

In this work Lavery represents the light and shade of the garden scene and all the character and charm of his female subject. As with Sewing in the Shade, the expression of the young maid is captivating.

Lavery gives us the “pause for thought”, the daydream.

The Extraordinary

Both Lavery and Osborne lived in a time of extraordinary change. A period of technological discovery, rapid colonisation,  economic depression, civil and world wars, and the birth of nations in Europe.

World War 1

The significance of these historical moments is very apparent in Lavery’s paintings.

He was commissioned as an ‘Official War Artist’ during WW1 but ill health kept him from the Front.  Instead he recorded the lives of people on the Homefront of wartime Britain. Lavery painted the acute sense of claustrophobia and anxiety that British people experienced.

He also painted munition factories as well as the tense nature of political dealings of war.

John Lavery joined a group of volunteers known as the ‘Artists’ Rifles’, a group of artists who had volunteered to join the fighting in WWI.  He partook in a number of drills, but physically he knew he was unable to help the cause and had requested advice from his doctor who stated:

“My dear Sir, go back to your paint pots, you will do more for your country with your brush than your rifle”
Sir John Lavery,
The Life of a Painter (p.139, 1940)

Lavery went on to do exactly this and became an official war artist in 1917.

The End: The Fore-Cabin of HMS ‘Queen Elizabeth’ with Admiral Beatty Reading the Terms of the Surrender of the German Navy | Sir John Lavery | Imperial War Museum | PD

The painting shows senior Royal Navy and German officers sitting together in the interior cabins of the HMS Queen Elizabeth. Fourth from the left is Admiral Sir David Beatty who is reading the terms of surrender to the enemy forces.

Lavery’s use of tonal light adds to the suspense of the scene, the shaft of light that enters from the porthole contributes to the drama.

Daylight Raid From My Studio Window | 1917 | Sir John Lavery | National Museums NI | PD

In this image from 1917 the artist paints his wife Hazel, as she watches German biplanes fly over the London skyline. Hazel was unwell during the War following a car accident that almost killed them both. According to Lavery, Hazel was against his plan to travel abroad to paint the conflict from the Front.

This painting in true Lavery style, shows the emotion with which he paints his wife Hazel, is palpable.

As part of his mission, Lavery accompanied members of the British Armed Forces on patrol and reconnaissance missions over the North Sea. Airships were used to spot enemy ships before they had a chance to attack allied forces.

A Convoy, North Sea | Sir John Lavery | 1918 | Imperial War Museum | PD

Sir John Lavery was in his early sixties at this time, but so strong was his commitment to painting, and to documenting the war, that he spent many hours leaning out of an airship sketching. As with the present image, many sketches were later painted to a much larger scale in his studio.

The quick visual perception and the painting artistry required to capture this scene in these circumstances and turn it into something of aesthetic beauty speaks to Lavery’s phenomenal ability.


The Opening of the Modern Foreign and Sargent Galleries at the Tate Gallery, 26 June 1926 | Sir John Lavery | 1926 | Tate Galleries, London | CC-BY-NC-ND

The Modern and Sargent gallery was part funded by J.J Duveen, an avid art collector and philanthropist, the gallery was then opened to great acclaim by King George V.

By 1926, Sir John Lavery had successfully completed two Royal commissions, at the 1888 International Exhibition Glasgow and a Royal portrait in 1926.

Walter Osborne’s path into painting was made easier by his comfortable upbringing as the son of  accomplished animal portrait artist William Osborne. His unremarkable childhood contrasts with the difficulties Lavery experienced in his early life. Osborne’s family was protestant, he attended the Rathmines School and on graduating entered the RHA school.  He was a gifted painter from a very early age and won the RDS Taylor prize in 1881 and 1882.

Osborne had the means to travel, first to Antwerp and then to Quimperlé in Brittany, France. This ability to travel provided many of the influences that shaped his technique and career.

Osborne was largely content with creating a catalogue of the ordinary through his paintings. He did not search out the dramatic, or the fame that seemed important to Lavery. His paintings often show the simple daily moments.  However, on his return to Ireland in 1892, his family background and reputation as an accomplished painter gave him easy access to Dublin society circles resulting in many portrait commissions, assuring his successful career as a portrait artist.

Mrs Noel Guinness and her Daughter Margaret | Walter Osborne | 1900 | Guinness Family Collection | PD

It has been suggested that Osborne set himself up as a portrait artist in order to provide financially, and this was done out of need rather than a passion for the genre.

Despite the suggestion that Osborne needed rather than wanted to be a portrait artist, it was a genre that he particularly excelled at and his work Mrs Noel Guinness and her Daughter Margaret received a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1900.

Lavery’s early childhood left him orphaned at the age of three and sent at first to relatives in Co. Down and then to relatives in Glasgow. These, not so auspicious, beginnings make Lavery’s access to high-society remarkable. Lavery moved, with apparent ease, in the upper reaches  of both Irish and British society, a real testament to his character, confidence and life choices as much as his evident gifts as an artist. Lavery also had the good fortune to marry Hazel Lavery (neé. Trudeau), further consolidating his position in the upper echelons and access to the portrait commissions that were so integral to his success.

A significant point in Lavery’s career came when he was commissioned to paint the visit of Queen Victoria at the Glasgow’s International Exhibition of 1888, an opportunity he used to full advantage.  The exhibition’s mission was to illustrate the city’s role in the British imperial economy and the civic pride of the nation. The exhibition was a successful project and Lavery used the opportunity to full advantage.

State Visit of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition | Sir John Lavery | 1888 | Glasgow Museums on display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum | CC BY-NC-ND

Lavery completed a series of paintings about the events taking place but ultimately it was Queen Victoria’s visit to the exhibition that resulted in his  “crowning moment”.

He inveigled his way into the Great Hall (top of this section) and a vantage point that allowed him to document her visit and create a large-scale painting of it.

This painting required Lavery to use his visual memory to compose a picture detailing the faces of hundreds of attendees. An initial sketch was created whereby the position of the attendees were noted. Then a long process of individual portraits followed to fill in the details.

The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace | Sir John Lavery | 1913 | National Portrait Gallery, London NC-NoC

Following this initial successful commission, Lavery was asked to paint the Royal family at Buckingham Palace completed in 1913, the pinnacle of society portraiture.  

A similar approach of sketching the composition and individual sittings was used for the painting of King George V, Queen Mary, Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII), Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood.

Both Lavery and Osborne lived and worked in a time of expansive social, cultural and political change. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the artist was often the visual recorder of their time.

Osborne was a beautiful genre painter, depicting the everyday life of people in the places he visited with a deftness and truth that shines still today.   He transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. Lavery, while not ignoring the lives of ordinary people, especially in his early career, was stronger at portraying the upper classes, their moments of leisure, their sports and cultural activities. Lavery also made a considerable and remarkable contribution to social history with his documentation of World War 1.


Chapter 2:

Forming the Artist

Chapter 3:

Chronicles of Friendship

Chapter 4:
Human Face Divine

Chapter 5:

New Worlds

Chapter 6:

End of an Era