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

 

The ‘Corsican Monster’ in British caricature

While British troops were away fighting the French during the Napoleonic Wars, a concerted war effort was being carried out on the home front. These years saw a proliferation of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in many forms. The government needed to whip up patriotic fervour not only to promote a general spirit of resistance against the French, but also to inspire volunteer recruits for the army and navy, and to persuade people that raised taxes were necessary for Britain’s very preservation.

The genuine popular demand for anti-Napoleonic propaganda gave lyricists, dramatists and others a rich fund of material to work with. This was a good time in particular to be a talented caricaturist. Napoleon (also known as ‘Boney’ and ‘the Corsican Monster’) was lampooned in prints by all the leading illustrators of the day, including Gillray and Cruikshank. By all accounts, the publishers of these satirical prints did a roaring trade. One French émigré wrote to the journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan of the enthusiasm surrounding a new print, describing the ‘madness’ as ‘people box their way through the crowd’ to the print shop. Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, another French observer described ‘a large crowd that had gathered in front of a shop on the Strand. The meeting was a noisy one and the agitation suggested that some people were actually boxing. We soon learned that a new caricature was the reason for all the upheaval. What a triumph for the artist!’

The caricatures themselves veered between bold assertions of Britain’s superiority, staunchly supporting the regime, to personal attacks on Napoleon, condemning everything from his short stature (a complete myth, incidentally), to the colour of his skin (suspiciously dark), to his troubled private life. For the personal attacks, nothing was considered too vulgar, as the following few caricatures show.

The First Night of my Wedding. Or Little Boney no Match for an Arch-Dutchess (1)

The first night of my wedding, or, little Boney no match for an Arch Dutchess (1810)

Marie Louise: Still says sly old Hodge, says he, Great talkers do the least d’ye see. Well well there’s one hope left – I shall quickly carry him to his Journeys end

Napoleon: Mort de ma Vie I must I must brush off to Compiegne and order seperate Beds

This cartoon is clearly about Napoleon’s alleged impotence. Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife, quotes from Charles Dibdin’s comic opera, The Wives Revenged, while using a crown-shaped chamberpot as a footstoolNapoleon, looking rather the worse for wear, drinks some sort of reviving potion, has a bowl of ‘cock-broth’ on the table and plans to buy separate beds as soon as possible, presumably to save himself from the rampant sexual demands of his new wife.
The arch dutchess Maria Louisa going to take her NAP 1810 LOC.2

The Arch Dutchess Maria Louisa going to take her Nap

Marie-Louise: My dear Nap. your bed accommodations are very indifferent! Too short by a Yard! I wonder how Josephine put up with such things over as long as she did!!!

Napoleon: Indeed, Maria I do not well understand you: the Empress Josephine who knew things better than I hope you do, never grumbled – Le Diable! I see I never will be able to get what I want after all!!!

This print mocks both Napoleon’s alleged stature and the fact that his first wife, Josephine, was sexually experienced when he met her, whereas Marie-Louise was meant to be the blushing virgin who would give him a healthy heir, a role she fulfilled admirably.

More politically-oriented cartoons spanned a broad spectrum, ranging from the brash trumpeting of British superiority to more subtle takes on Napoleonic foreign policy.

Caricature by James Gillray. Tiddy Doll, the great French-Gingerbread-Baker; drawing out a new Batch of Kings, 23. Januari 18..

TIDDY-DOLL the great French Gingerbread-Baker, drawing out a new Batch of Kings. – his Man, Hopping Talley, mixing the dough (before 1806)

This 1806 cartoon mocks Napoleon’s political re-shaping of Europe. In the ‘New French Oven for Imperial Gingerbread’, Napoleon is baking three new rulers for the German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden. Below the oven lies an ‘Ash-Hole for broken Gingerbread’, which includes Holland and Italy; they have been swept there by the ‘Corsican Beson of Destruction’. The basket to the left contains ‘true Corsican kinglings’, referring to the family members Napoleon put on the thrones of other countries. The cupboard on the right contains drawers for ‘Kings & Queens’, ‘Crowns & Sceptres’ and even ‘Suns and Moons’, suggesting that Napoleon wants to reshape the universe itself.

omparative Anatomy or Bone-ys new Conscripts filling up the Skeletons of the Old Regiments 1813

Comparative anatomy or Bone-y’s new Conscripts filling up the Skeletons of the Old Regiments (1813)
InvasionraftAn accurate representation of the floating machine Invented by the French for invading England. and Acts on the principals of both Wind & Water Mills, carries 60-000 Men & 600 Cannon (c. 1805)
Cruikshank_-_Little_Boney_gone_to_Pot 1814 G. Cruikshank

Little Boney gone to Pot (1814)

This caricature was drawn towards the end of Napoleon’s career. It shows the defeated emperor exiled on the island of Elba with no-one to keep him company except the Devil. He sits on a chamberpot, the toy cannon is all that remains of his military ambitions, and he seems ready to commit suicide with the gun offered to him by his satanic tormentor.

Caricatures were, of course, not the only form of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in Britain. Handbills denouncing Napoleon and containing gruesome accounts of supposed French atrocities were manufactured almost daily and distributed throughout the kingdom, probably reaching even the illiterate sections of the population. Patriotic plays were put on to whip up national sentiment, and anti-French broadside ballads were common. Clergy thundered against the Corsican Monster from the pulpit, and millenarian preachers warned that Napoleon’s evil empire was surely a sign of the end time.

Eighteenth-century English men and women were characterised as ‘a polite and commercial people’ in Paul Langford’s contribution to the New Oxford History of England. When it came to anti-Napoleonic propaganda, the English were hardly polite, but some of them were certainly commercially-minded. Canny manufacturers took advantage of popular sentiment and produced all sorts of anti-French memorabilia. Perhaps the most remarkable example I have seen is a chamber-pot featuring a small bust of Napoleon in the middle. How edifying it must have been for those consumers who were now able to express patriotic sentiment even when exercising their most basic functions!

napoleon_chamber_pot_jpg

The wicked waltz

In her 1771 novel Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche, writing no doubt for an audience of genteel ladies, portrayed the waltz as a “shameless, indecent whirling-dance [which] broke all the bounds of good breeding”. The early version of the German waltz which she was describing was a variant of the Ländler, a peasant dance dating from the 16th century. The Ländler was notorious for its closed position where men and women embraced each other round the waist and shoulders, and for its rapid turns which made dancers dizzy, breathless and (allegedly) open to all sorts of lustful abominations.

Notwithstanding such criticism, by the end of the 18th century, waltzing was all the rage in polite society in Germany and Austria. In England it was received with suspicion by the self-proclaimed arbiters of morality, as were most foreign innovations at the time. Until the introduction of the waltz, the most popular dances were the country square dances which involved very limited contact between the sexes. Therefore, one of the most criticised aspects of the waltz was its couples-only nature, with men and women dancing in a closed position. The Oxford English Dictionary called the dance riotous and indecent, and it was frequently satirised by caricaturists. Even Lord Byron condemned the waltz, though less for its alleged indecency than its antisocial nature, saying that it was “like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin”.

Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)
Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)

When the waltz appeared at the Prince Regent’s grand ball in 1816, the Times of London wrote:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last…it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it our duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”

It’s hard to tell how “voluptuous” the “intertwining of the limbs” really was. It could well be that, influenced by wine and a heated, packed ballroom, the dancers did hold each other very close in an immodest fashion. Yet the most popular instruction manuals of the day suggest that the Regency era waltz was a relatively decorous dance which does not fit the Times of London‘s description. In the illustrated frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s 1816 Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (see below), the men and women are dancing at arm’s length in quite a dignified manner.

Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance
Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance

Perhaps the waltz was not always as raucous and indecent as its critics maintained. At any rate, it was given one seal of respectability when the patronesses of Almack’s gave married women and those debutantes “whose deportment was impeccable” the permission to waltz in 1814. This was no unimportant decree; Almack’s was the most respectable and socially exclusive dancing assembly in Regency England. Primarily designed for debutantes, one of its main functions was as a marriage mart; the young women were expected to be on their best behaviour. The fact that waltzing was gradually allowed indicates a slow acceptance of the dance among the higher classes, at least.

Over the course of the 19th century, though, it seems that the waltz became less decorous. Paintings from the late Victorian era portray a very fast and energetic dance sure to leave dancers breathless. There were evidently plenty of opportunities for amorous expression, with some couples shown in a very close embrace. This was partly due to greater acceptance of the dance, and partly due to to a change in the dance itself. Around 1830, the Austrian composers Lanner and Strauss composed a series of waltzes which set the tradition for the later ‘Viennese Waltz’. These were very fast, played at 165-180 beats a minute; certainly a contrast to the early waltz, which was generally danced at an andante con moto: a sedate walking pace. The fast waltz did not replace the slower, but it became wildly popular among younger dancers who wanted to show off their athletic prowess. Since then, the waltz has of course become the best-known and most respectable ballroom dance around; a far cry from its initial reception in polite society.

Anders Zorn, Valsen. 1891
Anders Zorn, Valsen (1891)
Dance at Bougival, Renoir, 1882-3
Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1882-83)