Art and Politics – Painting the Treaty Portraits
The 1935 bequest of paintings by John Lavery to the Hugh Lane Gallery is well-known, of particular note is the set of portrait paintings of the signatories to the Anglo-Irish treaty signed with Britain following the War of Independence. After the ceasefire in 1921, Prime Minister Lloyd George attempted to arrange a peace summit, to discuss how the future ‘association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire can best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations’. Although Inverness in Scotland was initially proposed as the summit venue, negotiations started in London in October and the Treaty was signed there on 6th December 1921.
Lavery followed Irish events in the press, particularly proposals for a peace summit. Noticing that De Valera might return to London for further peace talks he wrote to Art O’Briain, the Irish government’s envoy to London. He wished to paint another portrait of the Irish leader, he felt an existing portrait was ‘fairly good’ but he believed he ‘could do him more justice’. Lavery had painted portraits of de Valera and Arthur Griffith that July when both men were in London during preliminary peace talks with Lloyd George. O’Briain agreed to help arrange another de Valera sitting, if he did return, while also commenting ‘the first portrait is splendid’.
Initially noting the conference was to take place in Inverness, Lavery sought permission to ‘make a pictorial record of the meeting there’. He envisaged a large history painting ‘on the scale of the Casement picture’, this was a reference to his now well-known painting of the Roger Casement trial in London. He also requested permission and co-operation from O’Briain to paint portraits of the Irish treaty delegates as he had previously done with de Valera and Griffith.
The delegates rented a house at 22 Hans Place, London and O’Briain asked Erskine Childers, Secretary to the Irish delegation, to make the necessary appointments for the portraits, which he did and confirmed this to Lavery saying, the delegates ‘thank you warmly and will be glad to arrange for sittings as soon as it becomes possible’. The grand history painting was never completed but the portraits were and became part of the 1935 bequest to the Hugh Lane Gallery.
Painting these portraits was important to Lavery who engaged with O’Briain and Childers over four months to secure access to the delegates and he was willing to travel to the cancelled Inverness meeting for the opportunity. The paintings were also important to the sitters, who knew they were making history and wanted it recorded. The significance of these portraits was recognised when they were exhibited for the first time in 1922 in Paris as part of an exhibition of Irish art associated with The Irish Race Congress (an international Congress on Irish affairs).
Lavery first attempted to present these portraits and other paintings to the Irish Free State in 1927. However politicians and others were of the opinion that these works ‘deal with events and persons who are the present cause of high and bitter controversial feelings’ and that a ‘few of [the pictures] would undoubtedly excite such feeling as might endanger safety’ of the subjects.
The gift also included portraits of the British signatories to the Treaty and Lavery took exception to a report ‘that [his] gift would be an embarrassing one, based on the fact that it included portraits of persons who might be regarded as unpopular in this country e.g. “F E Smith” (now Lord Birkenhead)’. Political anxieties and artistic temperament led to a delay in the presentation of the gift until 1935 by which time, some of the paintings offered in 1927, such as Cardinal Logue (1920), The Lady with the Green Coat (1926) and a 1927 self-portrait, were no longer on offer.
The Birkenhead portrait was the only painting identified as ‘controversial’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘embarrassing’. The sitter was notorious and universally disliked in Ireland for his staunch opposition to Irish nationalism and, as British attorney general, his prosecution of Roger Casement – he appeared in a second painting in the bequest, a sketch of this Casement trial. In reality, identifying Birkenhead as the only problem subject enabled the administration to avoid highlighting any division that still existed between both sides of the Irish Civil War that ended in 1923. Portraits of both pro and anti-treatyites, or paintings referencing the Civil War, such as Funeral of Michael Collins, Dublin 1922 (1922), were just as likely to incite political passions and ‘endanger safety’.
Note: The members of the Irish government who negotiated and signed the treaty were, Arthur Griffith (Delegation Chairman), Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Eamon Duggan, and George Gavan Duffy. At different times Lavery also painted the British signatories, David Lloyd George (in 1922), The Earl of Birkenhead (1923), Sir Winston Churchill (1915) and Sir Austin Chamberlain (1921).