Thomas Lawrence (1769 - 1830) was an English painter of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most commonly associated with the British Regency and the reign of George IV. Lawrence's talent lay in portraiture, almost to the exclusion of all other genres in the body of work he left behind, and he achieved considerable renown during his life. He is best remembered for his depictions of famous contemporaries, including George IV, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, the actress Sarah Siddons, Emperor Alexander I of Russia, Pope Pius VII and others.
Thomas Lawrence was born in Bristol on 13 April 1769, a birth year he shared with Arthur Wellesley and Napoleon Bonaparte, two men who would be responsible for shaping much of the historical period in which the artist would live and work. The future painter was the youngest surviving child of Thomas and Lucy Lawrence. The family was not wealthy; the father had been a Supervisor of Excise, but in 1772 retired due to the poor pay and instead opened the Black Bear Inn. Thomas had two brothers and two sisters: Andrew, William, Lucy and Anne, in order from eldest to youngest.
The painter's mother was responsible for her children's early education, but long bouts of ill-health later in life made it impossible for her to invest as much time and effort into her youngest son as she had into his four siblings. Thus, as a boy, the future painter received little formal instruction, of which he would speak regretfully later in life, though his father was interested in literature and the arts, and fostered, if rather unsystematically, the same interests in his child. As an artist, Thomas Lawrence was essentially self-taught.
From the outset, Lawrence's talent combined with his endearing personality, as well as his father's desire to show off the child prodigy, won the boy many friends and patrons. The Lawrences received several offers of sponsorship for the boy's artistic education. His father, however, reluctant to part with the child, declined all of them.
By 1779, Thomas Lawrence the elder had run into financial difficulties and was forced into bankruptcy. The inn was auctioned off, and the family moved to the resort-town of Bath where, it was hoped, the budding artist could find more employment. After being introduced to the medium of pastels by the artist William Hoare, Lawrence quickly accumulated the patronage of a number of rich or influential benefactors, including Sarah Siddons, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the Hon. Charles Hamilton, an art collector, as well as many others. Soon, the child prodigy, though barely 10 years old, was the chief wage-earner in the family.
In 1784, Lawrence submitted his copy of the Transfiguration by Raphael, in pastel, to the London Society of Artists, and was awarded a silver palette for the work. By 1786, however, Lawrence was feeling frustrated with the pastel medium, and even considered dropping art to follow a career in stage acting. He was discouraged by his friends and family and, in an inspired gesture, his friend William Hoare introduced him to oil paints, considered the Holy Grail for any artist aspiring to greatness. Lawrence took to the medium like a fish to water.
By 1787, Lawrence was living and working in London, where he enrolled at the Royal Academy. That year, he submitted several works to the Academy's annual exhibition, though it is now unknown exactly which ones. It is known that the critics praised his pastels, but received his oils rather lukewarmly. The painter was not discouraged and made rapid progress over the next few years. His breakthrough work was the portrait of Philadelphia Hannah, Viscountess Cremorne (1788-9), which, though still clearly showing some technical flaws, garnered much praise at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1789. One newspaper hailed Lawrence as "the Sir Joshua of futurity", referring to Royal Academy founder, president and pre-eminent painter of his day, Sir Joshua Reynolds. More importantly for Lawrence's career, the Viscountess Cremorne was lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, and recommended the young painter to her mistress.
There is irony in Lawrence's full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte (1790). Though it was universally praised and recognized as a great achievement for the young artist, the queen herself hated it, and outdid herself to make the commission difficult for Lawrence, refusing to show up for sittings and fighting with Lawrence over the details of her headdress and toilet. King George III was not impressed with the portrait either, and refused to pay for it. As a result, the painting remained with Lawrence, and he took full advantage of it, showing it at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790 and using it as his calling card to attract new commissions.
That year, King George, either having re-assessed his view of the painter, or perhaps in an attempt to make up for his faux pas earlier, recommended him for election to the Royal Academy. However, resenting interference from the King, the Academicians refused to do so. Lawrence's rise in popularity was impossible to ignore, however, and in 1791, he became an Associate Member of the Academy. In 1792, after the death of Reynolds, the King made a further show of support by appointing Lawrence his official painter in place of the deceased, though Lawrence ended up painting but a single portrait of the monarch throughout his tenure.
Through the 1790s, Thomas Lawrence suffered from financial problems, even though he was becoming one of the pre-eminent portrait painters in Britain. The artist preferred to be busy at his easel, than over his account-books, which often left his business affairs in disarray. In 1792 he was made an associate member of the Royal Academy, followed by full membership in 1794. This was extraordinarily quick. Lawrence's chief rivals in the field of portraiture--John Hoppner and William Beechey--did not become full members until 1795 and 1798, respectively, even though both were substantially older, better established, and had vied for the position much longer. Despite this, the two were quite successful, with the former enjoying the patronage of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, and the latter that of Queen Charlotte, as well as many other sitters that included some of the best and brightest names in England at the time. The cheaper prices they charged for the portraits certainly did no harm to their popularity.
Through this decade, Lawrence developed a close personal relationship with Sarah Siddons, whom he had known since his years in Bath. In 1796, he began an ill-fated love affair with her daughter Sarah Martha (Sally; portrait painted c. 1800), but soon changed his mind and began to profess his affection for the younger daughter Maria. All three had a penchant for dramatic gestures, as can readily be gleaned from their correspondence. The complicated love triangle was, however, soon broken by Maria's death in 1798. On her deathbed, she made her sister promise not to marry the painter, and it seems that Sally stayed loyal to her sister's bequest. In any case, Sally died soon after, in 1803. Lawrence never contemplated marriage again, living out the adage of an artist "wedded to his art". His treatment of the two girls also seems to have soured his relationship with the Siddons and Kemble families, and though he would go on to paint several of the family, he would never again be on such close personal terms as during this period. Other notable works from this decade are his Goya-esque portrait of Lord Montstuart (1795), the portrait of Francis Osborne, 5th Duke of Leeds (1796), Sarah Siddons (1798) and the portrait of John Kemble--Sarah Siddons' brother and also a prominent actor--as Coriolanus (1798).
The first decade of the 19th Century saw the painter continuing to struggle. Though George III expressed admiration for his work on numerous occasions, he denied Lawrence the royal patronage that was the mark of a portrait painter's success in that day and age. The only member of the royal family who sat for him was Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, but this was not advantageous to his career, as Caroline was estranged and publicly snubbed by her husband, the future George IV. At the time, there was much speculation that the painter and the princess were lovers. Lawrence did not get an opportunity to paint the Prince of Wales until 1814.
This lack of recognition detracted nothing from Lawrence's talent. Though later generations have largely stereotyped the painter as a skillful flatterer, who managed to make his way into the annals with his opulent portraits of George IV and other nobility, his portraits from the early 1800s easily put paid to that claim. Lawrence always adopted a style that best complimented his sitter. In fact, he often opted for more dramatic representations than was conventional at the time, omitting or playing down details of a person's rank and status for the sake of aesthetics. Thus, though the portrait of Francis Osborne, 5th Duke of Leeds (1796), in Garter robes, flaunts the sitter's position in society to the greatest extent, Lawrence's portraits of Edward, Lord Thurlow (1803) and William Pitt the Younger (1808) are exceedingly plain and sober. Meanwhile, his depiction of Mrs. Maguire and her son (1806), known as "the fancy group", scandalized the press with its lack of formality. (It did not help that Mrs. Maguire was the mistress of the Marquess of Abercorn, and the son their child.)
Lawrence's fortune finally changed in 1810 with the death of Hoppner, so long George III's favorite. Though the painter sorely despised himself for realizing it, Hoppner had been Lawrence's single greatest competitor, and his death meant that Lawrence rose to become England's pre-eminent portrait painter. The same year, the Prince of Wales was crowned Prince Regent.
The 1810s were a time of great historical, political and social significance, centered on the double defeat of Napoleon, first in 1814 and then finally in 1815 at Waterloo. As the foremost portrait painter in Britain, Lawrence was in a unique position to chronicle the personalities that were the shapers of contemporary Europe. In the year 1814 alone, the painter's sitters included such notable historical figures as the Austrian Prime Minister, Prince Metternich, Frederick Wilhelm III, the King of Prussia and Prussian Marshal Gebhard von Blucher. Lawrence also made the connections that would later enable him to paint such prominent figures as Alexander I of Russia, Cardinal Consalvi and Pope Pius VII. That year, the Prince Regent also finally consented to sit for the painter, and was well-pleased with the result. The painter was knighted Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1815, as had become traditional for court painters.
Of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, Britain's greatest hero of the Napoleonic Wars, Lawrence made numerous paintings through these years. Famously, in the half-length 1815 portrait, he omitted a red-and-white sash worn by the Duke. He explained to the decorated military commander that he did not like its appearance. "That is fine," Wellington responded... even though the sash represented his accomplishments as the commander of the British army in Spain!
During this eventful decade, Lawrence's financial situation also improved considerably. He raised prices for his portraits, charging three hundred guineas for a full-length portrait. The painter was able to move into new, much grander lodgings at 65 Russell Square, where he caused a sensation by the illustrious guests who frequented him. That year, he was able, for the first time in his life, to go abroad, visiting Paris. The French capital was then still home to a vast collection of art, plundered by Napoleon from across Europe. Under the terms of the peace, the artwork was to be returned, but as yet that process had not gotten under way, and Lawrence was able to admire many paintings by the old masters, including the Transfiguration, by Raphael, that had launched his own career some 31 years earlier. Though he had never traveled before, the painter had always taken a great interest in the Renaissance masters and his knowledge of their work was, as can be judged from his correspondence, encyclopedic. Lawrence returned to England immensely satisfied.
In 1818, the artist again went abroad, this time to Aix-la-Chapelle (modern-day Aachen), where the heads of state of the European Allies were due to meet. His mission was to paint portraits of the rulers, their ministers and their military commanders, to be displayed in the newly built Waterloo Chamber of Windsor Castle, which was intended to commemorate the victory over Napoleon. Though Lawrence had initial misgivings, the generous pay--some 525 guineas per portrait, and 1000 guineas in travel expenses--as well as the urging of his friends, led him to accept. As a result, the artist enjoyed himself immensely, however. Among others, Lawrence painted the Russian Tsar Alexander I, whom he came greatly to admire, Austrian Emperor Francis I, his wife Caroline Augusta of Bavaria, his brother Archduke Charles and the Russian diplomat Count Capo d'Istria.
As the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle concluded before Lawrence had completed his paintings of the Austrian delegation, he accepted Metternich's invitation to proceed to Vienna. At the same time, he received the Prince Regent's request to travel to Rome to paint Pope Pius VII and Cardinal Consalvi for the Waterloo Chamber. Though England tended to be extremely anti-Catholic, due to its long-standing conflicts with France and Ireland, Pius VII and Cardinal Consalvi, who was in charge of the Papacy's foreign relations as Cardinal Secretary of State, had been prominent symbolic figures in the resistance to Napoleon, defying him even despite the fact that, militarily, they were completely in his power. Thus, Lawrence's mission to Europe was suddenly extended by nearly two years--a fact he was none-too-happy about at the time.
Nevertheless, Lawrence greatly enjoyed Vienna and especially its art collections, which he deemed to be among the greatest in the world--greater than the one left behind in Paris after looted artwork had been returned. However, it must be remembered that the painter had left his native country for only the second time in his life. The social scene in Vienna was also much more to the artist's liking, as Aix-la-Chapelle, while including some of the period's brightest figures, had had more of the feeling of a military council. In Vienna, the artist, by dint of his association with royalty, as much as fame in his own right, found himself welcome to the highest circles of Austrian society, which of course opened the door for many commissions. Perhaps one of the most historically interesting was his portrait of Napoleon's young son (1819) who had, though very briefly and in name only, inherited his father's throne as Napoleon II.
The painter proceeded to Italy in May of 1819. Though he stayed until March, Lawrence painted only two portraits--strictly the ones he had been sent to paint--and made only a handful of drawings, in sharp contrast to his time in Vienna. The artist seems to have decided to take a much needed vacation, and focused instead on seeing Italy's art galleries. The work that he did produce, portraits of Pope Pius VII (1819) and Cardinal Consalvi (1819), as well as a pastel of the early woman writer Elizabeth Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1819), is among his best.
Important events, meanwhile, were taking place back home in England. On 29 January 1820, George III had died, and the Prince Regent finally succeeded him as George IV. On March 11, he was followed by the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West. Though Lawrence was not present for either event--he returned to London on March 30, one day after West's funeral--he well understood their significance to his career, as pre-eminent portrait painter in Britain and the favorite of the new monarch. Lawrence was voted, nearly unanimously, to succeed West.
This was arguably the beginning of the greatest decade in the painter's life and career. George IV, however slow he had been to warm to Lawrence earlier, turned out to be a surprisingly benevolent patron. By the time of the painter's death, George IV had spent some 25,000 pounds on commissions. Perhaps more importantly, he was incredibly tolerant of Lawrence's habitual lateness, though he often complained about it: for example, the portraits of Cardinal Consalvi and Pope Pius VII were not delivered until after the painter's death.
Robert Peel, the future prime minister Lord Peel, a wealthy industrialist, rising political star and prominent supporter of the arts, also began to patronize the painter extensively during this decade. One of the works he commissioned from Lawrence was the portrait of Mrs. Robert Peel (1826-7), later Lady Peel, often considered among Lawrence's finest works, and somewhat iconic of his work as a whole, despite the relatively small size and half-length format.
Despite support from the two, Lawrence was still heavily in debt. Very large sums of money seem to have been spent on buying artwork, particularly drawings by the old masters, including Rembrandt, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and others.
The artwork Lawrence produced in this last decade of his life had less of the exuberance of his earlier works, partly due to changing fashion, and partly to the artist's own changing taste: it is readily apparent when comparing the full-length of the 5th Duke of Leeds (1796) with the full-length of the 2nd Earl of Harewood (1823). Lawrence had been praised from the outset of his career for his ability to imbue the features of his sitters with a life-like animation, and the new, modest, bourgeois taste in clothing allowed him to capitalize on this ability. His portraits of the 6th Duke of Bedford (1822), Sir Walter Scott (c. 1827), Lady Robert Manners (1826), and even an informal painting of his chief patron, George IV (1822), are much in this vein.
One of Lawrence's best known and often-reproduced works today also dates from this period. It is the portrait of Charles Lambton. Though a commissioned portrait, it was for a long time thought to be--especially in France, where it was displayed at that year's Salon--a fanciful depiction of Byron, as a child. In actual fact, Byron never sat for Lawrence, as a child or otherwise. Tragically, Charles Lambton died only 2 years later, at age 13, of tuberculosis, probably appearing little older than his famous portrait.
Lawrence's talent had by this point also been recognized in Europe, largely thanks to his portraits of royalty from the previous decade. In 1823, he was voted a member of the Royal Academy of Denmark; a year later, he was invited to exhibit at the Salon in Paris. At the time, it was a rare honor for a British painter.
In 1825, George IV sent him to that country on a final mission abroad, Charles X and his son, Louis Antoine, the Dauphin, whom he had been sent to paint, greeted Lawrence warmly, and he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. Paris' art world was also excited to receive the artist. He became particularly close to Francois Gerard.
Back in Britain, the painter rounded off his depictions of Royalty with the portraits of Queen Maria II of Portugal, then a child temporarily in England to avoid the political turmoil in her homeland, the Duke of Clarence, future King William IV, and the future Queen Victoria, then but a girl of 10.
In December 1829, Lawrence was 60, going on 61, and still as frenetically engaged with his work as ever. He wrote to his sister, complaining of fatigue, and the miserable weather, but himself seemed to have viewed either as no reason to slow down. On New Year's Day, after spending all day hard at work, the artist fell ill. Despite this, he continued to paint sporadically over the next few days, whenever he could find the strength. By January 7, the artist was very weak, a condition not improved by being bled, as was standard medical procedure. He expired that day, surrounded by a handful of close friends.
Lawrence finished his days--rather abruptly, unfortunately--a well-loved and much-admired figure. While well aware of his talent and status, his mildness of manner and unassuming character had endeared him to virtually everyone of his acquaintance, however different their characters and outlooks. His reputation faded soon after his death, largely due to his association with King George IV, who followed his favorite artist into the grave mere months later, and though eulogized warmly at the time of his death, Lawrence today is remembered largely as an uncreative and skillful flatterer, skilled at catering to the tastes of the time.
Perhaps even more unfortunate is the fact that Lawrence's art collection, particularly his collection of drawings by the old masters, which at the time of his death was widely estimated to be one of the finest in Britain was refused for purchase by all of the four patrons it had been offered to: George IV, the British Museum, Robert Peel and the Earl of Dudley. It was consequently dispersed between a multitude of private collectors.
Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance by Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, Lucy Pelz. YC British Art, 2011.
Sir Thomas Lawrence by Sir Michael Levey. Yale University Press, 2006.
Thomas Lawrence by Geoffrey Ashton. International Publishers Marketing, 2006.
Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Kt. by D E. Williams. Nabu Press, 2010.