War at Sea

  • 1st December 2011 − 14th October 2012 | Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Scapa Flow, Orkney

On Christmas Day 1917, anticipating bitter cold, Lavery wrote to the Admiralty asking whether he could purchase an electrified suit for his forthcoming journey to Scapa Flow: 'The problem of making records from nature in a wintry wind has never been solved by the artist. I can see great possibilities with a portable battery and a wired suit.' The purpose of the suit was to centrally heat him, protecting him from the extreme weather. Arriving in Thurso to take the boat to Stromness, he almost turned back, so fierce was the snow and wind. But he awoke on board the ship to find the storm had passed, 'leaving a rippling prismatic sea, with the low, snow-covered hills of Scapa sparkling in the sun'.

Lavery completed five paintings on Orkney, all painted around naval headquarters at Long Hope and the naval base at Lyness. These are among his most atmospheric seascapes: the turbulent skies, the iron-grey sea on which the fleet rests at anchor, and the snow-covered shores of Scapa Flow make an arresting sight, impressing the viewer with the might of Britain’s sea power in its northern fortress.

On his return to London in early January, Lavery was confined to bed with a cold - the heated airman's suit had not been enough to withstand the Orcadian winter.

Next: The South and East Coast Ports