Review: ‘Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power And Brilliance’ At The National Portrait Gallery • 21 October 2010 ∼ 23 January 2011

Thomas Lawrence, born in Bristol in 1769, was in his time an artistic superstar. And yet most people visiting this new exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery – the first major exhibition for 30 years – will never have heard of him. He is only now being re-appraised as the supremely talented portrait artist that he was.

Thomas Lawrence, Rosamond Croker

Rosamond Croker, Thomas Lawrence, 1827

However during the Regency period he was admired throughout Europe, adored by the critics who compared him to Reynolds and Gainsborough and championed by the likes of Turner and Delacroix. He painted Pope Pius VII, the Archduke of Austria, King George IV, and the Duke of Wellington. He was also the society portraitist of his time. He was a brilliant draughtsman in any number of media (it’s worth visiting the show just for his wonderfully subtle drawings – below), and a master of surfaces whose portraits presented his subjects with confidence and élan, and his funeral was a national event. What went wrong with his reputation and why has he been so neglected since?

Lawrence was a child prodigy, the son of an innkeeper who would sell his ‘likenesses’ to customers for half a guinea. He became one of the youngest Royal Academicians (he would later become president of the Royal Academy), moving to London at the age of 18 and by age 20 had painted Queen Charlotte. The portrait that made his reputation was also painted at 20 – a dazzlingly accomplished and mischievous portrait of Elizabeth Farren, a famous comic actress (below)

Thomas Lawrence, Elizabeth Farren

Elizabeth Farren, Thomas Lawrence, 1790

Dressed not for the summer landscape that forms the background but in a fur and muff suggesting she has been out all night, the portrait shows off Lawrence’s astonishing talent for textural detail, whether thin gauzy fabric, shiny silk with its thick impasto highlights, or soft thick fur. Its flashy brushwork innovative and explorative on a par with Gainsborough. Perhaps part of the problem was that this delightful details are almost too good and become distracting – too easy to get caught up in.

It was Lawrence’s personal life which first lessened his standing. A scandalous affair with both daughters of the actress Sarah Siddons followed by a nervous breakdown damaged his reputation. Soon after Lawrence’s death this reputation rapidly declined and his sensuous and seductive portraits – often painted on a red ground which seeps out around the upper layers of paint – were branded by the Victorians as examples of Regency decadence, hedonism and loose morals.

And yet whilst he suffered this evangelical backlash by the Victorians, later modernist tastes found him too slick and superficial with his concerns for surface appearances and skilful flattery. In particular his rather sickly portraits of children which were often reproduced on chocolate boxes associated him ever after with mawkishness.

This is really a shame, because most of Lawrence’s portraits are admirable not only for their technical skill. He was radical in his romantic sensibility, the directness of gaze which he gave to his subjects, the bold and sketchy reds and blacks with which he delineated the men whom he painted, gave them life and almost confrontational authority.

Thomas Lawrence, Queen Charlotte

Queeen Charlotte, Thomas Lawrence, 1789

But it is the empathy in the portraits of some of his female subjects which is the most moving, particularly those older women whose seductive qualities he was not interested in. Two of the very best of these are the beautifully accomplished little pastel of the elderly Elizabeth Carter (bottom of page) or this famous, slightly melancholy portrait of Queen Charlotte.

Charlotte, the wife of King George the III who had just descended into an unknown madness (the famous ‘Madness of King George’, caused by the disease Porphyria) was apparently in a state off nervous tension at the time. The emotional sympathy with which he depicts the careworn Queen was maybe a little too honest and emotionally revealing – the portrait was rejected by the Royal Family and Lawrence was never paid for it. But it made his reputation and rightly so.

Thomas Lawrence, Elizabeth Carter
Elizabeth Carter, Thomas Lawrence, 1788-9, Pastel on vellum © National Portrait Gallery, London

Carter was one of the most learned Englishwoman of her time, being mistress of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, besides several modern European languages. You wouldn’t know it of course because portraits of women of the period rarely made reference to their academic accomplishments. But it’s a charming pastel of a pious and dignified older woman.

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