King George V, Accompanied by Queen Mary, at the Opening of the Modern Foreign and Sargent Galleries at the Tate Gallery, 26 June 1926

The Modern Foreign and Sargent Galleries at the Tate were opened by King George V amid great pomp and ceremony on 26 June 1926. The galleries were financed by Sir Joseph Duveen, director of the Duveen Galleries in New York and son of the celebrated art dealer, J.J. Duveen.

Duveen commissioned the Irish-born artist Sir John Lavery to record the event. Lavery had established a reputation as a society portraitist and painter of rapid, lively oil sketches of groups of people in interiors. He was also experienced in painting royal occasions of this type, having recorded the state visit of Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888.

T04906 is a preliminary study made on the spot for a larger, more detailed painting, also in the Tate collection (N04553), which shows the same event from a different angle. Here Lavery adopts a high viewpoint, taking in the entire length of the Turner Gallery, where the ceremony took place. The sketch is rapidly executed in Lavery's fluid, easy style. According to the Evening News, reporting on the event, it took only twenty minutes for the sketch to take definite form: 'For several minutes the King and Queen watched Sir John Lavery at work and both remarked on the astonishing speed with which the picture was being carried out…The artist explained,…"For pictures of this kind to be of any value…they must be done at once; otherwise the atmosphere of the moment is lost."'

The visitors and dignitaries are merely indicated with flickering brushstrokes and bold splashes of pigment; and, despite the proliferation of dark suits, the rich red walls and the warm palette of the Turners add colour and vibrancy to the scene. King George V and Queen Mary are visible in the background, slightly raised up on a dais and framed by Turner's Dido and Aeneas (1814 Tate N00494) behind them. The eye is drawn into the picture, past the empty chairs, following the diagonal line of the wooden pews, and finally resting on the Queen, resplendent in a Chinese silk dress and white crinoline straw hat.

Duveen was closely associated with Lavery from the early 1920s and was responsible for introducing his work to the American public. In 1925 the Duveen Galleries held an exhibition of Lavery portraits, interiors and landscapes which toured America. Later in 1931 Duveen commissioned a large group portrait of a Royal reception at Buckingham Palace.

Further reading:
Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery, Edinburgh 1993, pp.179-80.
Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery 1856-1941, exhibition catalogue, the Ulster Museum, Belfast 1984, pp.89-90.
Frances Spalding, The Tate - A History, London 1998, pp.49-50.

Frances Fowle
December 2000