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’.
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.
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.