Friday, 7 August 2020

The Elvery family in
Dublin and links with
Sephardic refugees

‘The Elvery family, A memory’ by Dorothy Elvery Kay (1938)

Patrick Comerford

Last week, when I reposted a Guardian report on the Sephardic legacy of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, my friend and former Irish Times colleague Seamus Martin drew my attention to the Elvery family, a famous Dublin business family, who claimed to be descended from Spanish or Portuguese Sephardic refugees who had changed their name in England from Alvarez to Elvery.

I was reminded of these stories yesterday as I passed the Elvery’s shop on Suffolk Street, near Grafton Street, and 7 Saint Stephen’s Green, where one of the most famous members of the family, the artist Beatrice Moss Elvery, also known as Beatrice Campbell and Lady Glenavy, had exhibited in the 1920s and 1930s.

In his book The Jews of Ireland (1972), Louis Hyman refers to Lady Glenavy and her autobiography, but he does not explore her family’s Sephardic roots.

The elephant that became a symbol of the family business in 1847 was a pun on the similar sounds of Elvery and Elephant. But it also distracts from the family’s original name. The Alvarez family were Spanish silk merchants who had migrated to England, perhaps through Amsterdam, and the name appears among Portuguese and Spanish families associated with the Bevis Marks synagogue from 1677.

Jacob Jesserun Alvares, for example, was a merchant living in Houndsditch when he appears in the synagogue records in 1677. Jacob Alvares, a member of Bevis Marks, was living in Bethnal Green by 1728.

One branch of the family anglicised their name to Elvery and moved to Dublin in 1847, as the sign over the shop in Suffolk Street continues to remind all. The family opened their first shop in Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, and began a family business that still continues.

Elvery's shop on Suffolk Street … a Dublin business for almost 200 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2000)

One of the best-known members of the family was the artist Beatrice Moss Campbell (1883-1970), Lady Glenavy, a member of the Arts and Crafts Movements in Dublin and London. She was born Beatrice Elvery on 30 April 1883, the second of seven children of William Elvery, who owned the family business in Dublin, and Theresa (Moss), a singer and music teacher, whose parents were English Quakers.

Beatrice’s spent her early childhood spent in Carrickmines, Co Dublin, where her family were members of the choir in the local Church of Ireland parish church. The family moved to Foxrock in 1896.

At the age of 13, she was sent to the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin in 1896. There she met the future Sir William Orpen, then aged 18. She concentrated on sculpture under John Hughes and had great success, winning the Taylor scholarship three years in a row (1901-1903).

Beatrice was the model for Orpen’s paintings ‘Colleen’ and ‘Bridgit’ in 1909. They remained life-long friends, and he encouraged her throughout her career.

Beatrice is known for her illustrations of Padraic Pearse’s work Iosogan (1907) Violet Russell’s Heroes of the Dawn (1913). From 1908 to 1924, she designed Christmas and other cards and calendars for the Cualla Press run by ‘Lily’ and ‘Lolly’ Yeats, which continued to be issued until after World War II.

Sarah Purser urged Beatrice returned to the Metropolitan in Dublin in 1904 to study stained glass. Purser had founded An Tur Gloine studio to train Irish artisans to make church stained glass windows. Of the 23 windows made by the studio for the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, six were made by Beatrice Elvery in 1905-1906, when she was only 22.

She remained at An Túr Gloine for six years, executing windows for Saint Stephen’s Church, Mount Street, Dublin; Saint Nicholas’s Church, Carrickfergus; and a war memorial in Carrickmines Church. Her window for a convent in Gort, Co Galway, led to a critical review of Purser’s studio by WB Yeats.

In 1912, Beatrice married Gordon Campbell, whose father, Lord Glenavy, later became Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Gordon Campbell became secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce in the Irish Free State and in 1922 moved with his wife and children to Clonard, Terenure. Within six months, their home was burnt down by anti-treaty forces – they were local men who are said to have allowed Beatrice to save the children’s Christmas presents.

Gordon Campbell inherited the title at his father’s death in 1931, when Beatrice became Lady Glenavy. She was elected a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in 1934.

She had a studio in Kildare Street and taught for a time in the Metropolitan School of Art. She also joined the more radical Dublin Painters’ Society and held in February 1935 a one-person show at their premises, 7 Saint Stephen’s Green. She helped establish the Dublin Drama League and assisted Shelah Richards in the production of two plays in 1936.

‘The beautiful Miss Elvery’ exhibited with the Dublin Painters’ Society at 7 Saint Stephen’s Green (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Her social life in Dublin was busy, and she was an active member of the United Arts Club. Her circle of friends included Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, DH Lawrence, Yeats, Countess Markievicz and Lady Gregory, who called her ‘the beautiful Miss Elvery.’

The Campbells moved to a large Georgian house in Rathfarnham about 1941, and 20 years later they moved to a smaller house in Sandycove. After Gordon died in 1962, Beatrice published her memoirs, And today we will only gossip (1964).

Beatrice died on 21 May 1970. She was survived by her two sons, the writer and humourist Patrick Campbell and the novelist Michael Campbell. Her daughter Bridget, an Irish international lacrosse player and a talented scientist, was killed by a bomb during the London blitz.

A portrait of the family by her sister Dorothy Kay (1938) shows in the background Orpen’s 1909 oil Colleen, for which Beatrice was the model.

Some of her works are exhibited in the Ulster Museum, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Hugh Lane Dublin City Gallery and the Crawford Municipal Gallery in Cork. Neither main museums in Ireland has paintings by Beatrice Elvery, and the major auction houses in both Ireland and England regard her paintings as rare.

Carrickmines Church has a lectern designed by her mother, Theresa Moss Elvery, and executed by Beatrice in Paris in 1926, as well as four windows by Beatrice. Paul Larmour describes her lectern as ‘a remarkable piece of organic art nouveau’ and says ‘there is nothing else like it in Ireland.’

The elephant has been associated with the Elvery family since they opened shop in Dublin in 1847 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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