Portrait of Helen Bell signed and dated 'J Lavery 92' (lower left) oil on canvas 37 x 28 cm. (14 1/2 x 11 in.)
During 1889 and 1890, when he was sketching portraits to be drawn together for the large commemorative canvas portraying The State Visit of Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition, Glasgow, 1888, 1890 (Glasgow Museums), Lavery became the court painter to the West of Scotland elite. There were 256 prominent individuals present on the occasion of the royal visit, and the majority filed through Lavery's studio in these two hectic years, while the Queen and her entourage were painted on flying visits to Windsor, London and Darmstadt. A surviving appointments diary indicates that the painter hoped to sell these rapid sketches each stamped with the project's title after the completion of the picture. Although The State Visit ... was not considered an unqualified success, this particular aspect of the procedure remained as a standard working practice. In future, in advance of a portrait, Lavery would execute a small oil sketch, approximately 14 x 10 inches, indicating the main features of his arrangement how a figure sat or stood, the shape and colour of clothing, the background and any other details to be included in the composition. On many occasions these notes were presented to the subject at the conclusion of sittings along with the finished work, and in some cases, because of their directness and immediacy, they came to be preferred as mementos.
The present work indicates just such an occasion. It depicts Lady Bell, wife Sir James Bell, who became High Provost of Glasgow in 1892, the year in which it was painted. Around this time, Lavery also painted Bell's portrait, and in 1896 he inscribed his sketch of the then, Mr Bell, to the present sitter. Born Helen Findlay, the daughter of W Findlay of Hallhill, Lanarkshire, she and her husband were already prominent figures in the arts in Glasgow when they came to Lavery's studio in 1892. Bell for instance, was, between 1887 and 1898, honorary secretary, chairman and President of the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, and he and his wife attended the Grand Costume Ball staged at St Andrews Halls in November 1889 to raise funds for the Scottish Artists' Benevolent Association an event which Lavery helped to organize. A partner in a firm of steamship owners, his rise to prominence in Glasgow Council, from 1890 was meteoric. He was for instance, a member of the sub-committee which voted funds for the purchase of Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black no 2, Thomas Carlyle, 1874 (Glasgow Museums), in response to an artist's petition which Lavery signed in 1891, and during his two terms as Lord Provost, 1892-1896, he carried out many improvements to the city, consolidating its services under the council's leadership. In later years, after his wife's death in 1909, he became Chairman of Clydesdale Bank and at this time, Lavery was recalled to paint his portrait for a second time.
The present portrait of Lady Bell indicates an alert and attentive consort, posing on a ladder-back chair that Lavery frequently used for portrait sittings. Seated in front of the red ochre drape which provides the tone for other portraits of 1892, she leans forward, as if to respond to what the painter is saying. Despite the fact that the work was executed in a single sitting, its delicate rendering of the sitter's features indicate a finer finish than would be usual for such a sketch, and it may be that Lavery hoped to exhibit the work in one of Thomas Lawrie's 'Fair Women' exhibitions, which were staged in 1892 and 1895.
We are grateful to Professor McConkey for compiling this catalogue entry.