Sir John Lavery recalls painting Anna Pavlova

Sir John Lavery accepts a commission to paint Anna Pavlova (above). Having had a few tedious experiences of actresses and dancers turning up late or not at all for sittings, he has initial misgivings. Pavlova turns out to be the soul of charm and punctuality, and the perfect sitter. He observes only one fiery outburst of Russian temper, directed at her husband and manager, the ballet impresario Victor Dandré.

Mr. Bruce Ingram, of the Illustrated London News, asked me to paint a portrait of Pavlova, giving me carte blanche. Having had some experience of painting actresses, and finding less trouble with Royal personages, I made conditions before agreeing to undertake the commission. I was to get a reasonable number of sittings, and some kind of undertaking that appointments would be kept. This was necessary, as most of the professionals I had painted in the old days behaved as if they were conferring a great favor by allowing themselves to be put on canvas, and acted accordingly. Before the telephone was in general use, and when my efforts as a portrait painter were not considered by my sitters as of supreme importance, I had many a bitter hour of frustration. Perhaps for days and nights, in some cases, I would be workng out a design and pose for the proposed subject. By the time she was expected I would have worked myself to fever heat. The hour would arrive but not the sitter. By the evening or next day a telegram would come with some trivial excuse such as “Fog in our part of town,” “At a dance last night, not looking my best this morning,” or merely, “So sorry did not come to-day,” and sometimes not even that. 

Pavlova was another exception to the rule of discourtesy. [Lavery previously tells us that Lily Langtry was also charming and punctual.] I naturally expected the greatest dancer of all time to be a difficult problem, and that when it got into the papers that she was sitting, interviewers, photographers, souvenir hunters, and admirers by the hundred would besiege the studio. Cromwell Place would be lined with cars carrying dressers, electricians, and all the paraphernalia of the stage; and then, when everything was set, Pavlova would not appear, and if she did it would be to complain that she had no time, that she had a command performance, or something equally tiresome. 

I was entirely wrong. She arrived unheralded and alone in a taxi, carrying her Bacchante dress tied up with a piece of pink ribbon. My wife’s maid helped her to put it on. For a whole morning she posed, almost without resting, going through the “Dance Bacchanal” in slow motion that I might better see the position and the action, explaining that she was doing her regular and necessary exercises and that I must not think I was exhausting her. She came three or four times a week during her Palace engagement, and never once missed or was late for an appointment. Telegrams and letters came during the sitting, but she looked at none until the end. One day when she was posing on the floor for the Swan picture [below], now in the Tate Gallery, Monsieur Dandré brought in over a dozen large photographs to submit for her choice. It was the only occasion I saw her really displeased; she looked daggers at Dandré, asking what he meant, and so on, all in Russian, and, taking the photographs, she tore them into pieces one by one. 

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