Sir John Lavery’s Miss Haslam at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin
The least discussed and potentially most striking picture which Lavery showed at the Royal Academy in 1912 was the portrait of a London girl – the daughter of the Member of Parliament for Monmouth, Miss Vida Haslam. In the same exhibition, two other Lavery portraits of women – Anna Pavlova, and the artist’s wife, Hazel – took critical precedence. The first of these, La Morte du Cygne, showed the world famous ballerina in her most celebrated role, while the second, The Silver Turban provided one of the most sympathetic portrayals of a beautiful woman who would achieve international recognition, largely through the adoption of her face in teh design of the Irish currency. While The Athenaeum would describe the first as ‘popular’ the Manchester Guardian mused on the second, declaring if a ‘beautiful head, cleverly painted and most becomingly arrayed in the shimmer of satin and glimmer of pearls’ with such strong competition from Lavery’s own hand, the portrait of Miss Haslam was passed over. That this treatment was unjust, is abundantly clear when we consider the portrait itself and is seventeen-year-old subject. She was neither public performer nor grand dame-in-waiting, but a fresh-faced girl whose modernity challenged the painter.
Helen Evelyn Vida Haslam (1894-1976) was the daughter of a wealthy cotton manufacturer from Bolton in Lanashire. As was common at the time, Lewis Haslam also pursued a political career, being elected in 1906 as Liberal Member of Parliament for the Monmouth constituency, a position he held until his death in 1922. The family lived in Cranley Gardens, Kensington, as short walk from Lavery’s studio in Cromwell Pace. Vida was thus a privileged teenager in an ambiance where intellectual debates were conducted on issues of the day – such as imperial governance, Home Rul legislation and the controversial theories of Social Darwinism and ‘eugenics’. She would go on to serve in teh Voluntary Aid Detachment as a nurse, training on the job, during the Great War. Immediately after the war she met and married John Lentaigne, an Irish solicitor attached to the British Imperial Civil Service in Ragnoon. There followed twenty-three idyllic months in Burma before Lentaigne fell ill with Cholera and died two days after the birth of his daughter Josephine. His last wishes were that his young wife convert to Catholicism, and bring up their baby daughter in Ireland both of which promises she honoured. She purchased Newtown House at Termonfeckin in Co Louth, where she hosted meetings of the United Irishwomen and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. As founding director of County Workers Ltd in 1930, she promoted the revival of country crafts and was elected as a local county councillor. Renowned for her charitable acts she brought Catholic refugees from Austria to Ireland at the beginning of the second World War, and although thereafter she moved briefly to London, tied with Ireland retained when in 1946 she purchased a farm at Brittas Bay. However , she returned permanently to London after its sale in 1956. However , she returned permanently to London after its sale in 1956.
Back in 1911 when she sat for Lavery, Miss Haslam’s life was before her. She did not come to the studio trailing celebrity and she answered the painter’s searching scrutiny with a directness that betrays the charm of youth.
What did Lavery make of her? He posed her on an elegant caned bergere that appears in a number of portraits after the mid-1890s and is most prominently placed in the center of The Artists Studio, 1910. Off to the right on a side table, a jug of white chyrsanthemums recalls earlier celebrated Lavery portraits of young women such as Miss Mary Burrell and Lady Evelyn Fraquhar, 1907. All of these pictures, in separate ways point to the lifelong influence of Velazquez over the artist.
Apart from a red book, the flowers, side table and chair are the only studio props. Elsewhere the background is treated with Whislerian decorum – indeed echoes of Whistler extend to the handling and pose. However by 1911, Lavery’s principal rivals in London were mostly younger painters, John Singer Sargent having officially given up portrait painting in 1912 he was showing the portrait of A Lady and Gentleman (The Artist’s Parents) (NGI). In his treatment of young women however, Orpen was positively coquettish and unlike Miss Haslam, figures such as Vera Hone in The Chinese Shawl appear poised rather than posed.
In contrast, Lavery’s model is confident, intelligent and stlyish but devoid of pretence. Her dress is simple and conventional – and were it not for the splendid sash that falls from her waist, we might assume that she has just returned from a game of tennis. The painter has caught her independent spirit, her honesy and candour, and avoided the flashy second-hand pyrotechnics of De Laszlo, JJ Shannon and other Sargent followers to provide a dazzling picture of une jeune fille en fleurs, who pauses, closes her book and speaks directly to the viewer.
Kenneth McConkey is Emeritus Professor of Art History at Northumbria University
Miss Haslam exhibited at The Westbury Hotel and on loan to the hotel by the Gallagher, Monahan and Roche families.