The BDA Museum has recently acquired the important oil painting by Sir John Lavery entitled The Dentist. The importance of the painting
This evocative painting is a unique depiction of a dental surgery in 1929. There are no other paintings of dentists at work at this time and very few photographs. Painted by one of the leading twentieth century portrait painters Sir John Lavery, the painting depicts Conrad Ackner in his surgery at 47B Welbeck Street. It is a significant work in terms of art history and to the dental historian as an accurate and exceptional resource for understanding twentieth century dentistry. The painting depicts Conrad Ackner concentrating on his treatment of Lady Lavery, the artist’s wife. Conrad Ackner was very proud of the painting and used it as a Christmas card for his friends. As expected the surgery is equipped with the latest equipment. Most prominent is the x-ray machine. Lavery was not afraid to paint the clinical environment and delighted in painting Ackner’s equipment as this showed his commitment to progress and modernity. The x-ray machine is likely to be the Victor X-ray Corporation’s CDX model, which had been introduced in 1925. Its inclusion also reflects Ackner’s particular interest in radiography. A similar machine and headlamp are held in the museum collection. The headlamp is also a prominent piece of equipment. Dental manufacturing catalogues reveal that these were not commonly used with dentists preferring the handheld mouthlamp. The prominence of these items in the painting shows Lavery’s attention to detail which is of great interest to the dental historian.
The Dentist was exhibited at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Exhibition in 1929 at the Grafton Galleries and then hung in Ackner’s practice along with four other Lavery paintings.
Sir John Lavery
Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) was born in Belfast in 1856. Orphaned at the age of three he grew up with relatives in Scotland getting his first job retouching photographic negatives in Glasgow. At the same time he attended the Haldane Academy of Art and then travelled to Paris to attend the Académie Julian. On his return to Glasgow in 1885 he achieved success with a group of fellow painters known as the Glasgow Boys who favoured painting outdoor scenes in an impressionistic style. In 1887 he was commissioned to paint Queen Victoria’s state visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition. This launched his career as a society painter. Moving to London he became friendly with Whistler and Rodin. Lavery exhibited at all the major salons across Europe and travelled widely. In 1910 he married Hazel Trudeau. She became a central figure in London society and was to feature in over four hundred of her husband’s works. She was famously reproduced on Irish banknotes between 1928 -1975. During the First World War he was commissioned as an Official War Artist to paint military camps, naval bases and munitions factories. He was knighted in 1918 and in 1921 elected to the Royal Academy.
After the war the Laverys became interested in their Irish heritage. His portraits of Winston Churchill and Michael Collins are of great historical importance and his commissions to record key historical events such as the civil war are of great historical significance. Between the wars he travelled widely and established his reputation in the USA. Lavery died in Ireland in 1941.
Lavery’s work is held in numerous museums and galleries around the world with large collections in Ulster and Belfast. A portrait of Lady Lavery entitled The Gold Turban, painted in 1929, recently sold at Sothebys for £500,000. There is a growing interest in his work, with the Glasgow Boys Exhibition at the Royal Academy (which includes works by Lavery) in 2010/11 and a major retrospective exhibition at Ulster Museum and Art Gallery in 2011.
Adolph Conrad Achner was born in 1880 in Ropcha (Ropcze) then part of Austria. He studied pharmacy at Vienna University followed by a PhD in the same subject from Bern University in 1904. On his arrival in England he studied at Guy’s Hospital gaining the Licentiate in Dental Surgery in 1912. During this time radiography’s potential as a diagnostic tool was recognised and Guy’s began to set up a Radiography Department. In October 1913, Ackner was appointed as the first Dental Radiographer to Guy’s Hospital. During this period he also changed his surname to Ackner and dropped the Adolf in favour of Conrad. In April 1913 Ackner rented one room at 47B Welbeck Street for his dental practice. His room on the first floor was small and he used the cloakroom in the basement to develop his x-rays. He published a paper on X-ray observations on abscesses, cysts and root resections which he also presented at the Sixth International Dental Congress of the FDI in London in 1914. As a BDA member he published a paper in the British Dental Journal on his new invention of a maxillary splint in 1915. During the latter part of the First World War Ackner was interned at Crystal Palace. On his return to the practice it began to rapidly expand. Details of his practice and his patients are known because of a scrapbook compiled by his staff over a twenty five year period. The scrapbook documents the expansion of the practice, including the employment of associate dentists, dental mechanics, receptionists and in 1926 the alsatian dog ‘Fang’. The scrapbook records the many notable patients Ackner treated including Marlene Dietrich, the King of Norway and John Galsworthy. By the 1930s the practice was so successful each dentist was able to specialise and Ackner took over a small surgery to dedicate to his particular interest of x-rays. He continued to work at the practice until the late 1960s. Conrad Ackner died in 1975.
How the museum will use the painting
The painting is now on permanent display in an area accessible to both members and the general public, It will be used in a variety of ways within the museum’s exhibitions, events and schools’ programmes. The museum mounted an exhibition using this painting as the central theme. The exhibition included the scrapbook compiled by Ackner’s staff at the dental practice. This was the first time the painting and the scrapbook have ever been on public display together.
The leading expert on Lavery, Professor Kenneth McConkey author of 'Sir John Lavery: A painter and his world' has written a paper for the BDJ.