The Times We Lived In: A Lady Lavery of great note

Published: February 9th, 2002. Photograph by Joe St Leger

 

Here in Ireland we love our greens. Sure don’t we have 40 shades – and more – at our disposal?

However, despite checking out colour charts from the most salubrious paint manufacturers, and finding 57 (or more) varieties – Card Room Green, Nettle Soup, Book of Kells, Christmas Wreath and, I kid you not, Arsenic – I couldn’t see anything that remotely resembles the shade of the wall in this photo.

Bilious Green, perhaps. No wonder Lady Lavery is looking wistfully, and somewhat dyspeptically, into the middle distance.

This is not, in fairness, a painted surface but one of those modular fabric-covered walls beloved of business premises. Still, Lady L must be wondering why anybody at the Central Bank thought it would make a suitable background against which to hang her husband’s famous portrait of her as the female personification of Ireland, all kitted out in her best Subtle Sage (or maybe even Lovely Lichen) dress.

When he was commissioned to design the first series of banknotes for the Irish Free State in 1928, the Belfast-born portraitist Sir John Lavery used his American wife, Hazel, as a model.

She graced our notes for more than 50 years. But the spring of 2002 saw the final chapter in Ireland’s triumphant transition to the euro. Hundreds of millions of the old notes were shredded, packed into banknote briquettes and dumped in landfill.

And, in a handover celebrated by our photograph, the portrait of Lady Lavery was given on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Ireland on Merrion Square.

Her elfin figure now resides on a gentle dove-grey wall – though she still has to battle for attention. This time the opposition is a large, and very striking, portrait of herself as herself, accompanied by her daughter Alice and stepdaughter Eileen.

In truth, of course, whether swathed in regal purple or dressed as a Green Cailín, this is one lady who was never going to be a shrinking violet.

You can buy this photograph and other Irish Times images from irishtimes.com/photosales

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