Sir Thomas Lawrence and the Romantic portrait

By the time of his death in 1830, Thomas Lawrence was the most sought-after and celebrated English portraitist of his age. He had painted everyone who was anyone, establishing his own distinct artistic style, and has been labelled in retrospect the visual chronicler of the Regency.

For such a supremely successful artist, however, Lawrence came from humble beginnings, being the son of a West Country innkeeper. Fortunately as it turned out, he grew up learning most of the accomplishments necessary to fit in with English nobility; namely, boxing, dancing, fencing, billiards, and a little Latin and French. When Lawrence’s father went bankrupt in 1779, the family moved to Bath, where Lawrence found a congenial atmosphere for developing his artistic talents. He was soon supporting his parents by producing small pastel portraits, such as the one below, of local notables. Lawrence’s affability, charm and talent endeared him to Bath’s residents and visitors alike, and he received commissions from the aristocracy and encouragement from other artists.

At the age of 17, Lawrence moved to London where he became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the premier portraitists of the day. Although Lawrence soon dropped out of the school at the Royal Academy of Arts, he managed to exhibit several works at the Academy, earning him his first royal commission, a portrait of Queen Charlotte. Although the finished portrait was not favoured by its subject, it found critical success at a public exhibition. Also shown at the 1790 exhibition was Lawrence’s portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren, which was declared by the press to be ‘completely Elizabeth Farren: arch, spirited, elegant and engaging’.

One of Lawrence’s early pastel portraits. Done as a boy, it obviously lacks the sophistication of his later works.
Lawrence’s celebrated early portrait of Elizabeth Farren

Over the ensuing years, Lawrence went from success to success. In 1791, Lawrence was named ‘painter-in-ordinary to his majesty’ by George III, and he found in the Prince Regent a longstanding and generous patron. Lawrence was knighted in 1815 and commissioned to travel Europe in order to paint the allied leaders for what would become the Waterloo Chamber series, housed in Windsor Castle. His illustrious sitters included Emperor Francis I of Austria, Tsar Alexander, the King of Prussia, and a young Napoleon II.

Back in London, Lawrence was appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1820. This was the highest formal academic honour an artist could receive at the time. Yet for reasons which still elude Lawrence’s biographers, Lawrence spent his whole life deeply in debt. This despite the fact that he worked hard, earned the best commissions, and does not seem to have been an extravagant man. He despaired of his situation, complaining that ‘I have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money. Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it from me’. It seems likely that Lawrence’s money went on generous presents to family and his extensive collection of Old Masters, along with his apparent inability to keep accounts.

Like most portraitists of his age, Lawrence strove to flatter his patrons. He made the aristocracy of late Georgian Britain appear uniformly beautiful, elegant and fascinating. He even managed to mould the corpulent Prince Regent into a sort of byronic hero in his sketch for a bust portrait.

George, the Prince Regent

Yet even if Lawrence idealised his sitters, I love his portraits for their bold colours and outstanding vividness. His sitters’ gazes are often direct and piercing, and their whole figure radiates energy. I am especially drawn to Lawrence’s portraits of women, as their strong gazes, sparkling eyes and confident poise are quite different from the serene countenances of earlier 18th-century portraits, or from the dull sweetness of early Victorian female portraits. In this respect, Lawrence had the advantage of his time. Fashionable patrons, strongly influenced by Romanticism, wanted to be painted as windswept romantic figures full of life and passion. Lawrence’s genius came both from his technical talent and his ability to mould his sitters into figures which truly captured the Romantic spirit of the age.

Emily Mary Lamb
Sir John Moore
Lady Selina Meade
Sir Graham Moore
Lady Caroline Lamb
Mrs John Allnutt
Pope Pius VII
Marguerite, Countess of Blessington
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey
Lady Maria Conyngham
2nd Earl of Liverpool
Arthur Atherley

 

Castle Ward, a house divided by marriage

Castle Ward, in Northern Ireland, is a remarkable building, though it is not known for architectural brilliance, opulent interiors, great artworks, or beautiful gardens. Instead, what strikes you when you visit Castle Ward is the overwhelming sense that the architect must have been deranged. This is because one half of the stone mansion is done up entirely in Georgian classical style, while the other half – right down to the furnishings – is constructed in eighteenth-century Gothic Revival style. One might suspect this to be some morbid joke on the part of the architect, or the wild frolic of some mad craftsman. However, the house’s dual aspect was in fact intentional and is, as far as I know, the only example of its kind.

Originally known as Carrick na Sheannagh and owned by the Earls of Kildare, Castle Ward had been the home of the Ward family since around 1570. The Wards were prominent Anglo-Irish gentry, elevated into the aristocracy when Bernard Ward was made 1st Viscount Bangor, in recognition of his political service. In 1747, Bernard married the widow Lady Ann Bligh and started building a new, grander edifice suitable for the dignity of his position.

However, Bernard ran into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in his quest to design the perfect house: namely, his wife. While Bernard favoured a cool and masculine classical style, Ann much preferred Georgian Gothic Revival, with its turrets, spires, fan vault ceilings and pseudo-medieval décor. It might be supposed that in the 18th century, the taste of the wife would have to be subservient to that of her husband; the building (along with the wife) was generally his property, after all. Clearly, however, Ann felt so strongly about the architecture and interior of the proposed house that Bernard was obliged to relent and allow her to have half the house built and decorated as she wished. Their subsequent joint efforts were mocked by the Bluestocking artist Mrs Delany, who visited in July 1762 and wrote in a letter that Bernard lacked taste and Ann was ‘so whimsical that I doubt her judgment’.

Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor
Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor
Ann, Viscountess Bangor
Ann, Viscountess Bangor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In her excellent book, Behind Closed Doors: At home in Georgian England, Amanda Vickery writes of the Wards and their house:

“…division was unmissable at Castle Ward in County Down in Ireland in the early 1760s, where marital disagreement over style resulted in clashing Gothic and classical wings. The Wards separated shortly after the building was completed – architectural incompatibility was prophetic.”

I suspect that Vickery is being tongue-in-cheek; notwithstanding their different architectural tastes, we don’t know whether Bernard and Ann were unhappy for a long time or whether the separation came on suddenly. Ann did stick around to bear her husband eight children, after all. In fact, some sources claim that Ann and Bernard never actually separated.

The entrance side of the building is done in Bernard’s preferred stern Palladian style, with columns supporting a triangular pediment. Ann was allowed to have the back of the house done up in the way she wanted, built in the Georgian Gothic style with pointed windows, spires, and even battlements.

Palladian exterior Irishdeltaforce

gothic exterior Ardfern

The interior followed a strict division along these lines, with the front half of the house decked out in Palladian/classical style, and the back half in Gothic Revival, covering everything from ceilings to bookcases to stairwells. On the one hand it is noteworthy that Ann was allowed to decorate half of the house entirely in her own style; on the other, it is telling that she was given the back of the house, with its private sitting rooms, while the reception rooms were all done in her husband’s preferred neoclassical style.

The following rooms are from Bernard’s side of the house, and follow a cool neoclassical theme in both decoration and architectural features.

palladian grand hallway Irishdeltaforce
Entrance hallway
palladianArdfern
Note the white and pale green colours, and the austere classical-style door frames

 

palladian sculpture & pillars Ardfern
Antique Greek bust amid classical columns

palladian2 Ardfern

palladian 3 Ardfern
Compare the austere ceiling stucco design with Ann’s ceilings, below

The following rooms, designed according to Ann’s taste, present a strong contrast. They are full of Gothic Revival decoration and furniture, and the overall effect is, in my opinion, much more domestic and warm. She must have found these rooms more comfortable to spend time in than the draughty neoclassical reception rooms favoured by her husband.

gothic room ARdfern
Note the fanciful ceiling, the red chairs and wallpaper, and the use of wall sconces
gothic Ardfern
The window shape seems an odd mixture of the Gothic and the Oriental styles
gothic ceiling 3Ardfern
This fanciful ceiling design seems to combine ‘oriental’ aspects with the fan vaulting found in many Gothic cathedrals
gothic bookcase Ardfern3
Gothic Revival-style cupboard
gothic door ARdfern
The door which leads into the neoclassical half of the house
Gothic1 fireplace & cupboard Irishdeltaforce
Gothic-style fireplace

Interestingly, Ann’s architecture and furnishings somewhat resemble that of Strawberry Hill House, a Gothic Revival villa built from the 1740s-70s by author Horace Walpole. I don’t know for sure whether Ann was influenced by Walpole’s design, or just more generally by the Gothic Revival, but the similarities are striking.

Strawberry_Hill_House_May_2013_22 Jonathan Cardy
Compare the fan vault ceilings and the red wall colour
Strawberry_Hill_House_from_garden Chiswick Chap
Both houses feature battlements, vaguely Gothic-shaped windows, and little spires
Strawberry_Hill_House_May_2013_09 Jonathan Cardy
A door shaped like the one which divided Ann’s side of the house from her husband’s
Strawberry_Hill_House_May_2013_14 Jonathan Cardy
These Gothic Revival bookcases are reminiscent of Ann’s, though these are much lighter and more elegant

Before the Revolution: images of secular Iran

Notwithstanding the recent diplomatic thaw between the US and Iran, most people in the West, if asked to envisage the Islamic Republic, would likely see in their mind’s eye a country of angry religious fundamentalists, full of oppressed women swathed in black robes.

While that picture has some elements of truth, what is perhaps not so well-known in the West is that for much of the 20th century, Iran was a secular regime in which women wandered the streets of Tehran in miniskirts. This, from a country where state television currently forbids showing musicians in the act of playing instruments, as it is supposedly damaging to public morals.

This is not to say that Iran was an ideal country; far from it. The Shah of Iran was unpopular and autocratic, using the country’s oil revenues to fund his lavish lifestyle. Political dissent was not tolerated. Great swathes of the country remained poor, conservative, and illiterate – in fact, one of the current regime’s greatest achievements has been in raising literacy standards so that literacy for women aged 15-24 now stands at 97.70%, as opposed to 42.33% before the 1979 Revolution.

Yet notwithstanding these caveats, Iranian society (especially in urban areas) became modernised and westernised to an extent unimaginable today. Echoing the spirit of Ataturk’s modernising reforms in Turkey after World War One, the Iranian shahs were determined to turn Iran into a nationalistic, militaristic, secular and westernised country by hook or by crook. To that end, women were actually forbidden to wear the veil in 1936, were granted suffrage in 1963, and attained high positions in government and the judiciary.

Below, I have collected a number of Iranian photographs dating from the 1930s to 1970s which capture something of the spirit of this brave new world.

Magazine cover
Magazine cover

girls reading

POI_0298_Nevit

fairground ride

1970s-iranian-fashion-4

The board of directors of a women's rights association in Tehran (1923-1933)
The board of directors of a women’s rights association in Tehran (1923-1933)
Magazine cover
Magazine cover

25Bahman1

Iran Air hostesses
Iran Air hostesses

picnic

Female parliamentarians in mid-1970s Tehran
Female parliamentarians in mid-1970s Tehran

flares

beach

POI_0304_Nevit