Jasmin (Aϊda) signed 'J Lavery' (lower right); further signed, inscribed and dated 'AΪDA/by/JOHN LAVERY/FEZ 1900' (verso) oil on panel 36.5 x 26.2 cm. (14 3/8 x 10 1/4 in.)
PROVENANCE: The Artist Gifted from the above to Dr Conrad Ackner in 1927 Gifted from the above to Miss M Lunn in 1937
In 1888, when commissioned to paint the State Visit of Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition in Glasgow, John Lavery adopted a practice which he maintained throughout his long career. This was to work, alla prima, using small wooden sketching panels or canvasboards that enabled him to get to know a sitter and plan a composition, before embarking on a large canvas. As in the present case, these small works were often used as gifts for clients and friends, their spontaneity on occasion, commending them over more finished portraits. Changes in style and palette, alterations in handling and treatment, are often revealed in such pictures for the first time, enabling us to place them in the broader context of the artist's oeuvre, and in the present instance, the picture of 'Jasmin', an Arab woman, relates closely to a larger canvas (the present example bears a date and title in the artist's hand on the reverse, neither of which is consonant with the style and treatment of the painting itself. Lavery was notoriously cavalier with such inscriptions. There is no record of his having visited Fez in 1900 and pictures of the Moroccan girl, Aϊda, were all painted before 1909. Jasmin, the larger portrait of the present sitter passed through the Fine Art Society, London during the 1970s). It is likely to have been painted on either of two trips to North Africa to Tunis and Tangier in 1919 and 1920.
In the first of these, Lavery took up an offer from Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger to visit his Arab palace at Sidi-bu-Said, on the coast near Tunis. Liberated from his war commissions, he declared his intention to find and paint an Arab lady 'for up to that time I had never seen one'. The story goes that in the absence of the Bey of Tunis, the chief eunuch in charge of the harem supplied him with a model dressed in fantastic splendor who did not live up to his ideal of Arab female beauty, and he declined to paint her later castigating himself for a missed opportunity (John Lavery, The Life of a Painter, 1940 (Cassell), p.104). Lavery had of course been painting head studies of Arab women since 1892). This is more or less complete fabrication, for although he discovered on arrival that the palace, overlooking the majestic bay of Tunis, was the most captivating thing he saw, he did find 'Jasmin', a Tunisian woman, who posed for him in traditional costume. This differs from that of the Moroccan women he had painted - essentially in its colour, style of headdress, and in the jewel which is worn at the forehead to ward off the 'Evil Eye' (variations in costume along the coasts of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are extraordinarily rich and much cross-fertilization occurs. For this reason we cannot completely rule out the possibility that the present work was painted in Tangier the following year). Eyes and eyebrows are blackened with khol, and walnut bark, known as swak, was chewed to increase the redness of the lips ( For further reference see Catherine Cartwright-Jones, Harquus: North African Women's Traditional Body Art, Vol 2: Paint, 2009, at www.hennapage.com/henna/encyclopedia/nahq/HQNA3.pdf). Lavery was much exercised by the 'Evil Eye', believing that his Moorish sitters 'jibbed at being painted', because he, as a Western male, possessed it (Lavery, Life, p.105). This naivety did not evidently extend to Jasmin who confidently returns the painter's gaze in the present lively work.
Conrad Adolph Achner (1880-1975, later 'Ackner') was Lavery's dentist. He trained in Bern and Vienna before moving to London around 1910, becoming the first dental radiographer at Guy's Hospital in 1912. He subsequently established his private practice, known as 'the white surgery' at 47B Welbeck Street; see Kenneth McConkey, 'Sir John Lavery's The Dentist, (Conrad Ackner and his Patient), British Dental Journal, vol 210, no 2, January 2011, pp.81-5).
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for compiling this catalogue entry.