Our guest blogger, Angela Weight, was formerly Keeper of Art at Imperial War Museums from 1981 to 2005. Angela curated the exhibition War at Sea currently showing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 31 October 2012. The exhibition consists of paintings by Sir John Lavery, an official war artist during the First World War, and all but one of the paintings are from the art collection of Imperial War Museums.
When I was asked to curate an exhibition of Sir John Lavery’s war pictures for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, I knew at once that I would need to visit as many of the places where he had worked as possible. The munitions factories in Glasgow, Newcastle and Edinburgh have long since vanished, but the naval ports in Scotland, the Orkney Islands and on the south coast of England are still there, if much changed. Despite the passage of nearly one hundred years since Lavery was employed as an official war artist, I wanted tread in his footsteps and see what he had seen, in order to understand the man and his work.
Lavery was in the habit of writing to the Department of Information on the headed stationery of whichever hotel he was staying in. This is a great help in both tracking his movements and dating his paintings. I started at the nearest place, Richborough Port on the Kent coast, and enjoyed a weekend at the Bell Hotel in Sandwich in April 2009, as did Lavery in April 1918. Dover, Harwich, Southampton and Woolwich followed in due course, and at each place (sometimes visited twice) I tried to locate and photograph the same views that he had painted, and spent hours in local history libraries. I discovered for instance that his painting of Southampton Water was indeed painted from Hythe Pier (and I took the Hythe Ferry across the Water, as Lavery must have done), and that the brown factory buildings on the right of the painting were the Rolling Mills, a short-lived wartime facility that was demolished in 1920.
My most memorable trip was to the Orkney Islands. Lavery had travelled there by naval troop train just after Christmas 1917, but there is a limit to what I will suffer for art, so I booked a night train to Inverness and the last summer sailing of the boat from Thurso to Stromness on 22 October 2009. It was snowing and bitterly cold during the four days Lavery spent at Scapa Flow, painting the Grand Fleet as it lay at anchor after the previous year’s battles in the North Sea. I had fine weather, and had the great advantage of having one of Orkney’s parliamentarians to drive me around the Islands. It was reasonable to assume that owing to the severe weather Lavery did not roam far from Naval HQ at Long Hope and Lyness, but it proved impossible to locate the views shown in his paintings with any certainty, bar one. Standing above the harbour at Long Hope, we looked down on almost the same view as Lavery himself had seen in December 1917. The black shed in the foreground has gone, but the stone building and the pier are instantly recognisable. This was the first of several occasions when I felt an almost tangible link to the past through an artist and a place where he had stood decades before.