It’s not all that often that a notable Regency event takes place in America, so I’m really thrilled about the landmark retrospective show of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s paintings that just opened at the Yale Center for British Art last Thursday. Anyone who can make the trek to New Haven (which actually is quite a nice little city, with great restaurants and boutique hotels) should do so, for it’s the only place in North American that will be exhibiting the works. (Some of which have never been shown in public before. Pictured at right is a self-portrait)
Many of you are probably familiar with some of Lawrence’s greatest portraits, like the regal Duke of Wellington looking every inch the Iron Duke, (left) and the handsome (some may say too handsome) image of Prinny (right). But the full array of his people—from statesmen and soldiers to ladies and children—is mesmerizing n its power to bring the era breathtakingly alive.
Thomas Lawrence himself is a fascinating figure. Born in 1769, he was a child prodigy, a self-taught savant whose formal schooling consisted of two years of attending classes between the ages of six and eight. His father ran an inn in Bristol, but took over the Black Bear Inn in Devizes, a popular stop on the London-to-Bath coaching route, when his own business failed. Travelers would often be asked if they wanted their portraits drawn by the precocious little boy. By age ten, “Tommy” was already being written about in the press.
When his father failed again at business, the family moved to Bath, and from then on, Lawrence supported them with his artistic talents. The charge for a pastel portrait was three guineas, and his sitters included, the Duchess of Devonshire, Sarah Siddons and Sir Elijah Impey. By all accounts, Lawrence was a handsome, charming, modest young man, and popular with his patrons.
In 1787, when he was still seventeen, Lawrence moved to London and set up a studio at 41 Jermyn Street. He enrolled at the Royal Academy, but left off his classes after only three months (no one really knows why.) He had several works in the Royal Academy exhibit of that year, and six the following year, including one oil painting—a medium he had quickly mastered, apparently on his own. By 1789, his works were garnering favorable acclaim, with one critic calling him "the Sir Joshua of futurity not far off." (A reference to Sir Joshua Reynolds.) At age twenty he received his first Royal commission, and journeyed to Windsor Castle in order to paint the portraits of Queen Charlotte (who did not like the finished work) and Princess Amelia.
On the death of Reynolds in 1792, Lawrence was appointed “painter-in-ordinary to his majesty” by George III, and in 1794, he was made a full member of the Royal Academy For the next 30 years, he would reign as the premier portrait painter of his day, and captured the likenesses of many of the leading luminaries of the Regency. His use of paint, sometimes rendered in thick layers,is quite striking, but perhaps the most innovative technique was his unique way of rendering eyes. He developed a double white highlight— a dot in the iris and a faint white edging on the lower lid that adds a liquid luminosity to his portraits. (If you go to see the exhibit, be sure to lean in and take a close look—it's absolutely wonderful, and is part of what makes the faces seem so alive!)
Through his friend, Lord Charles Stewart (left), Lawrence became acquainted with the Prince Regent, who became one of his most important patrons. A major commission in 1814 involved doing portraits of some of the top Allied leaders, including Wellington, Von Blucher and Count Platov (right). Much pleased with the work, Prinny rewarded Lawrence with a knighthood in 1815.
The plan called for him to go abroad and do portraits of some of the leading foreign rulers, but Napoleon’s escape from Elba put that project on hold. However, in 1818, he headed off to Europe where he spent nearly two years traveling and painting the likenesses of such notables as Tsar Alexander, Emperor Francis I of Austria, and the King of Prussia. (These portraits became part of the Waterloo Room at Windsor Castle, shown at left.)
On his return to London in 1820, he was elected the President of the Royal Academy, a position he held until his death in 1830. His output remained prolific throughout the next decade and his depiction of children during this time is recognized as particularly insightful.
In contrast to the great success of his professional career, Lawrence’s personal life was fraught with disappointment. He was romantically entangled with the two daughters of Sarah Siddons, with his affections shifting from one to the other, and back again. The affairs ended unhappily, and both women died young. Later in his career, Lawrence was linked with Isabella Wolff (left), whom he had painted in 1803, but he never married. Contemporaries commented on how Lawrence seemed to fall in love with his female subjects—and vice-versa—which may illuminate his gift for embodying paint and canvas with such spirit.
His finances were also a source of trouble. Though he earned a fortune in commissions, he was constantly in debt—though his biographers are puzzled as to where all his mony went. Lawrence himself claimed, “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.” And most people agree. It’s thought that his great generosity to his family, and his magnificent—but expensive—collection of Old Master drawings ate up most of his earnings.
I’ve been a casual admirer of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s work for some time, but this exhibition encouraged me to take a closer look at his work. And I’ve come away dazzled. His brilliance at capturing the nuanced details—the fashions, the ornaments, the styles, the individuality of each person—conjures up the texture, the smell, the feel and the energy of the Regency in all its colorful glory. (At right is an older Wellington, in the same pose as eariler)
The great French painter Eugene Delacroix said this of Lawrence: "His picture is a kind of diamond which glitters all alone where it is and obscures everything around it." I couldn't agree more!
How about you? Do you find that paintings of a bygone era help you picture what it was like? Do you like Lawrence’s work? Or do you have a different favorite artist, or a favorite painting that has sparked your imagination? Please share!