Lavery was born into the parish of St Patrick’s Church, Donegall Street and was baptised there in 1856. Lavery’s father, Henry, was a spirit merchant nearby, he unfortunately died in 1859 after the Pomona boat he was aboard (sailing from Liverpool to New York) capsized off the Irish coast. Henry was never able to fulfill his dream of migrating his family to America for a more prosperous life. The grief caused by Henry’s death is thought to have killed his wife only three months later. John Lavery, alongside his older brother and younger sister, were left as an orphans. The duty of care for the unfortunate children was split between relations, with John and his brother moving to Moira with one uncle, whilst their sister stayed in Belfast with another.
John’s passion for art began after leaving Belfast. In the first instance Scotland proved influential, Lavery moved to Glasgow at the age of fifteen during which time he balanced work as a photographers’ apprentice and attended classes at the Haldene Academy of Arts. He later moved to London in 1879 where he spent 6 months attending classes at The Heatherley School of Fine Art. A later move to Paris in 1881, and a stint at the Académie Julian proved further influential for his work.
A commission he received in 1888 would shoot Lavery into stardom, he was requested to paint Queen Victoria at the National Exhibition in Glasgow. With the image completed in 1890, Lavery became a coveted painter across high British society. Legend suggests he individually introduced himself to everyone in the 1888 image in an effort to gain further personal commissions! Also in 1890, he married his first wife Kathleen MacDermott who would die shortly after the birth of their daughter Eileen. Following his loss, Lavery embarked on an European tour that would spread word of his talent beyond Britain.
In 1909 Lavery married again, to the Irish-American socialite Hazel Martyn who he had met in France (her mother had opposed the match so the wedding could only take place after her death!). Together, they became heavily involved in Irish politics and the creation of the Irish Free State. However, her intimate involvement in politics meant that Lady Hazel was the subject of much gossiping at the time, with rumours that she had affairs with Winston Churchill, Michael Collins and other political figures still lingering today. Following the establishment of the Free Irish State in 1922, Lavery was commissioned to provide the artwork on the new Irish banknotes in 1928. Tasked with depicting a female figure which represented Ireland, only two weeks after his original commission Lavery presented the image of his own wife. Hazel is shown with a shawl and an Irish harp, set in a background of a traditional Irish landscape of lakes and mountains. The so called ‘Lady Lavery’s Series’ remained in circulation on Irish banknotes until the 1970s.
John Lavery’s artwork benefitted from various outside influences, from his international upbringing and studies, to his involvement in international politics and foreign travel. Lavery, however, never lost touch with his North Belfast roots. On Easter day in 1919 Lavery presented St Patrick’s Church with a gift of an ornate triptych; ‘Madonna of the Lakes’. The Madonna was modelled on his wife Hazel, St Patrick was modelled on his daughter Eileen and St Brigid on his step-daughter Alice. The Donegall Street Church still proudly presents the impressive triptych today, which can be viewed behind a protective glass case by all visitors. In 2019, John Lavery was awarded a Blue plaque on Donegall Street to commemorate the birthplace of the iconic artist. Far from being confined to the life of misfortune Lavery initially had, Lavery crafted an impressive international reputation for creativity that lasts today. Lavery died in 1947 in Co.Kilkenny and joined his beloved wife Lady Hazel in her grave in London.