The white stucco-fronted house across the street from the Natural History Museum in south Kensington looks much like its handsome mid-19th century neighbours with cast iron railings and Doric porch. But 5 Cromwell Place, the home of the painter John Lavery and his wife Hazel, was at the centre of events during Treaty negotiations 100 years ago this month.
It was here that Lavery painted portraits of the two delegations, including Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera on the Irish side and David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and FE Smith, Lord Birkenhead, on the British. Lavery gave the pictures to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin when Hazel died in 1935 but they are now on display in London for the first time in "The Art of Negotiation", an exhibition at the Irish Embassy to mark the centenary of the Treaty.
"It's quite unusual to have a suite of visual art that is a central historical account of a momentous time," Hugh Lane Gallery director Barbara Dawson told me as she and curator Logan Sisley gave the exhibition a final once over before the opening.
"They were all painted in 5 Cromwell Place. But the artist's studio not only was a nerve centre for creating these art works, this visual history of Ireland. [Number] 5 Cromwell Place was also an informal centre for the negotiations because Hazel and John had informal dinner parties where the delegates from both sides could meet. And that was really, really important. This is where Collins met Churchill and then Churchill invited him to lunch in his house. Birkenhead, Lloyd George, they all met one another in Cromwell Place. So the artist's studio was a place of political negotiation as well."
Born in Belfast in 1856, Lavery was orphaned at a young age and raised by relations before moving to Scotland where he studied. Thanks to royal patronage, he became a celebrated portraitist of early 20th century London society before marrying Hazel, a wealthy Chicago widow who was herself an artist.
Lavery was celebrated not only for his skill as a painter but for his gift for capturing features that expressed their character. Apart from society portraits, he painted major works documenting the course of modern Irish history, including the appeal of Roger Casement in 1916. Birkenhead led the prosecution of Casement for treason and George Gavin Duffy, one of the Irish negotiators Lavery painted, defended him.
It was Hazel who prompted Lavery to paint the Treaty negotiators in 1921 after she encouraged him to “do something for your country”. He painted all the Irish negotiators in 1921 and their British counterparts a year or two later, or in Churchill’s case a few years earlier.
“We know Lavery was a superb portraitist, his manipulation of paint and his incisiveness in managing to capture the diverse personalities of these men who were really diverse in background and were just united in one common goal that was achieving a treaty with Britain. I think that Lavery managing to capture these diverse personalities in such a short space of time was truly incredible,” said Dawson.
The Art of Negotiation is part of a series of Embassy events in London to commemorate the Treaty and at its opening on Thursday evening Ambassador Adrian O’Neill said its purpose is “to deepen our understanding of this period of our shared history”.
The Treaty 1921: Records from the Archives
Next week, the Embassy and National Archives of Ireland will bring another exhibition "The Treaty 1921: Records from the Archives" to London for display in the British Academy at Carlton House Terrace. It will use primary sources from the national archives and records from other institutions to map the events that led up to the Treaty negotiations and to give new insights into the recollections of the delegates.
In December, the Embassy will host a number of performances of The Treaty, a new play from playwright Colin Murphy and Fishamble Theatre Company, that tells the story of what happened inside the negotiations.
All of these events take place as Ireland is again at the centre of a British negotiation, this time with the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol. Dawson believes that the Lavery portraits resonate down the years with an insight about the nature of negotiations and what makes them work.
“I think they speak to us about a humanity,” she said.
“You see here statesmen, you see dignity, you see humanity. And for me, it just reflects the fact that negotiation, collaboration is really the only way to achieve results, to achieve peace, to achieve reconciliation or resolution.”
- "The Art of Negotiation – John Lavery's Anglo-Irish Treaty Portraits" is at the Irish Embassy in London until November 7th.