The Goose Girls

The Goose Girls. Sir John Lavery RA RSA RHA (1856–1941). Oil on canvas, 18 x 22 inches; 45.8 x 55.9 cm. Signed and dated 1885. Collection: The Fine Art Society, London.

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Commentary by Kenneth McConkey

In the summer of 1885, Lavery found himself the centre of attention among the painters of the Glasgow School. James Guthrie, Arthur Melville and Edward Arthur Walton all came to visit him at Cartbank while he was painting The Tennis Party, (Aberdeen Art Gallery). Although the language of Salon naturalism was well understood, Lavery was pushing at the boundaries, and his self-assurance surpassed that of his fellows. His sophisticated sense of spatial orchestration and naturalistic colour, combined with acute observation of the significant moment in the action separated him immediately from the more conventional Bastien-Lepage-derived subject matter of Guthrie and Walton.

The ambition of this major work spilled over into smaller ‘tennis’ pictures and into the present work. Indeed, with The Goose Girls, the more formulaic aspects of his style and subject matter, acquired in the previous two years at Grez-sur-Loing, are applied in a more confident way. Here as in On the Loing, An Afternoon Chat (Under the Cherry Tree) 1884 (Ulster Museum, Belfast), great care is taken over the rendering of foreground details. Instinctively Lavery had grasped the central tenets of Bastien-Lepage, that a painting should represent lived experience; it should simulate an encounter and address the material texture of life. Although this river is humbler than the Loing, its sweep provides the spatial structure of the composition. The sensation of depth is accentuated by the treatment of dead leaves on the path and by the powerful modelling of the geese while the girls in the middle distance, by contrast, are handled in a more summary way. Lavery’s confidence in assembling the essential properties of the mise-en-scène is what immediately impresses the viewer.

Lavery was already beginning to ease away from the ‘broad and systematic’ touch that had been taken up with enthusiasm by the other Glasgow painters, in response to Bastien-Lepage. Indeed it is this that distinguishes The Goose Girls from To Pastures New, 1883, Guthrie’s thesis picture in the new manner. In Guthrie, the flock of geese forms a frieze as it progresses across the picture plane. However, Lavery’s rendering of a similar subject presents us with an authentic set of circumstances that might almost be regarded as a page torn from life. The shy children maintain a respectful distance. The elder girl has an infant in her charge, and the young one stands back and apprehensively puts her thumb to her mouth, just as a child of her age would do.


McConkey, Kenneth. Lavery and the Glasgow Boys. Exhibition Catalogue. Clandeboye, County Down: The Ava Gallery; Edinburgh: Bourne Fine Art; London: The Fine Art Society, 2010. No. 4.

McConkey, Kenneth. John Lavery, A Painter and his World. London: Atelier Books, 2010; pp.30, 32 (illus. in col.).

Last modified 4 October 2011