John Lavery was born in Belfast on 20 March 1856. While he was a child, his family moved to Scotland. He attended Haldane Academy in Glasgow in the 1870s and then moved to Paris in the early 1880s in order to study at the Académie Julian. After graduating he returned to Glasgow and was associated with the Glasgow School.
In 1888 he was commissioned to paint the state visit of Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition. He moved to London soon after the painting was complete and became friendly with James McNeill Whistler and it is clear that he was influenced by him. In 1896, William Burrell commissioned Lavery to paint a portrait of his sister Mary Burrell. This portrait was exhibited in many different locations and is considered as one of Lavery's finest works.
He married his first wife in 1889, but she tragically died of tuberculosis in 1891, shortly after their daughter was born. Lavery remarried Hazel Martyn in 1909, she was an Irish-American and had a daughter from a previous relationship.
Lavery was appointed an official artist in the First World War. He was unable to travel to the Western Front because of his ill-health. He therefore stayed in the United Kingdom and painted boats, aeroplanes and airships. He was knighted after the war and in 1921 he was elected to the Royal Academy.
Lavery and his wife were involved in the Irish War of Independance and the Irish Civil War. They alllowed Irish negotiators to stay in their London home druing the negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Lavery painted a picture of Michael Collins after he was assasinated, which is now displayed in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin.
Lavery returned to Ireland in the 1930s, and died on 10 January 1941, aged 84. He died of natural causes.