CHRISTIE’S March 1 | Live Auction 19783
Modern British Art Evening Sale
Lot 18 SIR JOHN LAVERY, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A. (1856-1941)The Viscountess Castlerosse, Palm Springs
GBP 400,000 – GBP 600,000 ($556,104.54 – $834,156.81)
Lavery had of course, already painted Doris Castlerosse’s portrait in 1933 when her marriage to Valentine Browne, Viscount Castlerosse, was already under strain. Having visited the Kenmare estate in 1913 to portray Lady Dorothy, the viscount’s sister, the Laverys were already well-known to the Castlerosse family. It is certainly the case that following their marriage in 1928, the two couples met socially (Mosley, 1956, p. 99). During a sitting however, Doris is reported to have asked the painter, ‘If I were divorced, it would not make any difference, would it, Sir John?’ Lavery’s diplomatic reply is unrecorded, but his wife, Hazel, was known to admire Doris’s ability to survive ‘rebuffs and unpopularity’ – the ‘same qualities as Ramsay MacDonald’ (George Malcolm Thomson, Lord Castlerosse, His Life and Times, 1973, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 110-111). A columnist of the period provided a vivid pen-portrait of Lady Castlerosse in the following terms:
‘She is well turned-out with no exaggeration. She has no habits. She does not pick the varnish off her fingernails. She does not twist her ring around her finger. She does not smoke cigarettes. She does not drink champagne. She does not disdain bad language. She makes full use of the common idiom in her speech’ (Mosley, 1956, p. 108; quoting from The Daily Express, 12 July 1932).
Born Doris Delevingne (1900-1942), daughter of a French lace and silk importer, Lady Castlerosse rose to fame in the twenties when sharing a flat with the actress, Gertrude Lawrence. She was regarded as a ‘gold-digger’ even though her husband, a failed banker, turned gossip columnist for the Sunday Express, had little money. At the time of her first sittings to Lavery she was having an affair with Randolph Churchill. Reports of a dalliance with his father, Winston, are complemented by his two portraits of Doris (David Coombs and Minnie S Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill, His Life and His Paintings, 2011, Ware House Publishing, cat. nos C152 & C158). In Hollywood in 1938, around the time she was sitting to Lavery on this second occasion, she was attending premieres and social events with Mr and Mrs Fred Astaire, Moira Shearer and Darryl Zanuck. Meeting the eighty-two-year-old painter in January 1938, at Palm Springs was likely, nevertheless, to have been a moment of calm in an otherwise full Hollywood diary.
Sittings in which the ‘model’s dais … was the spring-board’, were conducted by the pool at the Moroccan-style villa. Lavery composed the picture from two sketches using his portable easel. …
When revealed to the public, Lavery’s model, ‘pretty and very young-looking’, her legendary legs dangling over the pool, was almost carefree. Although she wears white court shoes in the photographs as The Sketch noted, the artist ‘has not forgotten to record the gay-lacquered toe-nails of Lady Castlerosse in his bathing portrait of her’ (‘What Every Woman Wants To Know’, The Sketch, 4 May 1938, p. 224). And as a master stroke, the artist includes the legs of the unseen, unidentified companion on the left of the canvas. A contemporary photograph which has recently come to light, indicates that these also belong to Castlerosse, snapped wearing a hairnet, shorts and plimsoles, during a break between the sittings (alternative theories, one advanced by Katharine FitzGerald, suggesting that the unseen observer was ‘a film director’, or another, that the legs belong to Doris’s brother, can be discounted).
Beside her, the present canvas is in progress and we can see that the ornate white garden chair, originally in the background, has been removed and adroitly placed under the figure reading, in place of the ugly wooden lounger. Lavery was clearly aware of the universal admiration for the famous Castlerosse limbs and secretly pays his own tribute, by painting them not once, but twice.
And of course, he had painted swimming pools before, in Florida and on the Riviera. The setting fascinated him. Art lovers today regard David Hockney as the ‘owner’ of Californian pool imagery. It may come as a surprise to some to discover that an aged Irish painter shared his enthusiasm and acted as its precedent.