Never a rose without the prick – Was Lady Lavery an OG Sad Girl?

The Red Rose, John Lavery, oil on canvas, 102.3 x 128cm (1923).

The Red Rose (1923) is a painting that I have pricked my hand off many times as I try to get a handle on its intrigue. Compositionally, it has always oddly reminded me of an inverted Death of Marat (1793), an artwork that also depicts a figure steeped in nationalism. A languid and twisted torso lies in dramatic anticipation of your eyes. You are compelled, of course you are, you are only human. You enter the gallery, push the heavy door, shuffle your feet awkwardly around as you pause haphazardly in front of a few paintings, trying to create a rhythm for yourself in the space and then you are pulled into her orbit. From the back wall she calls you and you beeline towards this unknown world of plush furnishings, drapes, velvet and carpet. The melancholy calling out to you like a Lana Del Rey song.

The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas, 162cm x 128cm (1893).

Her sad expression, the red hair, the waif-ish frame; it is as if Audrey Wollen herself, the proliferator of ‘Sad Girl Theory’, has infiltrated another historical painting for critical commentary. Red roses, gloominess and a tiny frame: here is a ‘Sad Girl’ Tumblr post rendered in paint and immortalised on canvas. Wollen, an artist and critic, promoted ‘Sad Girl Theory’ way back in the far-way-land of 2015 as a radical reconceptualising of the idea of female sadness. She argued that focusing on the frailty of young women who experience sadness refuses to acknowledge the dangerous or rebellious power of this kind of vulnerability﹘sadness is a political protest not a passive act.  In the tumultuous intervening years, the theory has drawn some criticism for the aesthetic it promotes: skinny, privileged, white girls. 

Audrey Wollen poses in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (2015)

Of course, this particular depiction of ‘female sadness’ was created by a man. The Red Rose is an image of Hazel Lavery fabricated by her husband John. During World War I, John transformed himself into a ‘Sir’ by becoming an official artist of the British government and reshaped the identity of Hazel to ‘Lady’ Lavery. Arguably ‘Sad Girl’ is now being rendered by a man once again﹘as she transforms into Taylor Swift’s ‘Sad Girl Autumn’ or Spotify’s ‘sad girl starter pack’ playlists she becomes cultural capital or just another example of plain old capitalism and hence another pawn in the patriarchal narrative. The sadness is only radical if we feel it, not if we resign ourselves to it. Sure, we grew up on one of the OG ‘Sad Girls’, Dido and her album Life for Rent (2003) but have we ever considered, as privileged white women, we are still in the same position she was singing about ﹘ ‘nothing I have is truly mine’? Maybe we should stop accepting images of ourselves as victims and reject the inevitability of pain caused by living in a patriarchy altogether. When we resign ourselves to living in a state of disaffection our image will always be created in response to man or by a man.

The first snippet of gossip I heard about Hazel Lavery was when I was in the National Portrait Gallery in London. A guide, in an aside about the painter ‘Sir John Lavery’ relayed rumours of her romantic involvement with Michael Collins. The guide was a man, so the knowledge imparted probably wouldn’t be categorised as gossip, maybe ‘historical context’ or something equally grandiose sounding. In Belfast I met her on a ‘peace wall’ on Falls Road﹘although here she resembled more of a sean-bhean bhocht, her beauty lost on the cement of this partitional structure. The taxi man relayed some more guff about her and ‘the Big fellow’ and now I meet her again within the big walls and the high ceilings of the Crawford Art Gallery. Here she is in the Republic, this Irish-American born in Chicago﹘I cannot help but think of a big brash broad like Shirley MacClaine in Downton Abbey﹘gripping a rose a symbol of England. Here is our story; here we are flanked between the American Dream and Project Empire while the colour drains from our skin. Was she a peacemaker in independence talks as some accounts make her out to be or was she just a woman with those responsibilities thrust upon her? How can one figure contain so many multitudes?


Cathleen Ní Houlihan by John Lavery appeared on Irish banknotes from 1928 to 1976.

‘Lady Lavery’ was reproduced in her multitudes on the Irish pound note, a symbolic event in the cementing of a national identity post-independence. With a harp in tow, she poses as Cathleen Ní Houlihan, one of the many incarnations of the patriarchal figure of ‘Mother Ireland’. Mother Ireland has been rendered throughout Irish history for different agendas. She is Celtic Goddess, she is a symbol of Irish Nationalism, she is Yeats’ and Lady Gregory’s literary figure Cathleen Ní Houlihan, she is the actor Maud Gonne, she is the poetic genre ‘the aisling’ that emerged out of Cromwell’s invasion in the 17th century, she is a reclaimed poetic figure utilised by Eavan Boland, she is the revolutionaries Cumman na mBan, she is Brigid goddess of the spring, she is St. Brigid endorsed by the Catholic Church, she is the Mother of all Irish emigrants since An Gorta Mór, she is the Virgin Mary, she is a symbol of republicanism in Northern Ireland, a mirror image of William of Orange. Her legacy is long and conflicted. Mother Ireland is not only the entirety of the land but she also houses all her contrasting visions. In contemporary utilisations of the Mother Ireland trope artists have reintroduced a feminist narrative to this figure. Jessie Jone’s depiction of Mother Ireland in the film installation Tremble Tremble (2017) reimagines Mother Ireland as a giant who asserts the ancient reproductive right ‘The Law In Utera Gigantea’, in an example of the recent reclaiming of this social construct. Interestingly, to this day Bunreacht na hÉireann enshrines women in the home but also uses the words ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ interchangeably:

In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

Maybe we can consider this use of language not as the creation of a ‘victim’ who has been instructed to conform to society’s constructs but as an invitation to embody the large powerful figure of Mother Ireland in all her multiplicity. Let’s not forget that Hazel Lavery was an artist too, she created her own images of the world.

The paint on The Red Rose is ageing. I have an impulse to engage in a Brian Fay ‘crack drawing’ and trace the timelines appearing in the oil paint. I want to uncover her many, many multitudes. John Lavery begun work on this canvas years before he encountered Hazel, it is believed her likeness contains earlier portraits of Mrs William Burrell, stage actor Sarah Bernhardt, and Viscountess Curzon within it. Her alabaster skin is ghostlike and ethereal. The figure of Mother Ireland continues to haunt and to hold us. In loose brushstrokes she appears painted from a dream but her hand is so real you feel you could reach out and grab it﹘grab it and get inside the dream and shape it.

I feel like I should move on because﹘queen that she is﹘Hazel Lavery is beginning to look a little bit bored of my shit﹘my seeking, my searching﹘I am but another pleb gossiping endlessly about her for their own agenda. Her head is thrown back as if she too is dreaming, not content to sit in sadness but to act upon it.

Text by: Sarah Long

The Red Rose is currently on display in ‘BEHIND THE SCENES: Collection at Work’ at Crawford Art Gallery. 26 November 2022 – 10 April 2023

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