I was lucky enough to be able to visit this exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London last week. It is a relatively small exhibit- certainly when compared to the blockbuster exhibits of the past few years in London-the Reynolds, Gainsborough,Hogarth exhibitions for example -but a fascinating exhibit none the less.
For people interested in the personalities of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portraits are familiar works of art. When I first began to take note of the fashions in the art world it was with some uncomprehending dismay that I discerned he was rather despised. After a flash of brilliant popularity in his life time, after his death, Lawrence’s works were quickly and completely disparaged by fashionable society and art critics, most notably by Thackeray in Vanity Fair.
…The ladies of Gaunt House called Lady Bareacres in to their aid, in order to repulse the common enemy. One of Lady Gaunt’s carriages went to Hill Street for her Ladyship’s mother, all whose equipages were in the hands of the bailiffs, whose very jewels and wardrobe, it was said, had been seized by those inexorable Israelites. Bareacres Castle was theirs, too, with all its costly pictures, furniture, and articles of vertu–the magnificent Vandykes; the noble Reynolds pictures; the Lawrence portraits, tawdry and beautiful, and, thirty years ago, deemed as precious as works of real genius
(Vanity Fair, Chapter XLIX)
How he dammed Lawrence by this unfavourable comparison to Van Dyke and Reynolds…..As a result of his works suddenly becoming unfashionable and unacceptable, many were sold from English collections, finding homes in American collections and further afield.
Michael Levey, the late Director of the National Gallery, who made a lifelong study of Lawrence’s works and life, wrote about Lawrence’s sudden fall from grace as follows:
Sir Thomas Lawrence is an artists who has suffered a most unusual fate. His was a story of phenomenal talent as a portraitist, first revealed and recognised in early childhood; and during his lifetime he enjoyed phenomenal success- not only in Britain but all over Europe from Vienna to Rome. No British artist before him had travelled and worked so widely on the Continent or enjoyed such a warm reception at the courts of Europe. Highly intelligent, unusually literate and outstandingly handsome, with manners polished to a degree, he was almost as admired and successful personally as were his portraits. And yet from the moment of his sudden death in January 1830, reaction set in-reaction which bordered on revulsion and which has-at least in England never entirely vanished…
(See: Sir Thomas Lawrence by Michael Levey, page 1)
The current exhibition at the NPG seeks to address this situation and to re-establish Lawrence as an artist of the first rank. The 545 works on show are mostly bravura works of art, massive portraits in the swagger tradition, but there are also quieter pieces which demonstrate very clearly that Lawrence was a fine draftsman capable of conveying great tenderness. In fact, I was drawn to these quieter exhibits far more than the bow-wow strain of the larger works, to paraphrase Sir Walter Scott (whom Lawrence painted, below, but who is not included in this particular exhibit.)
But before I get too carried away…what has this to do with Jane Austen? He never painted her and moved in much more fashionable circles than even Henry Austen could aspire to, so why should Lawrence’s works interest us? Well, many of the people Lawrence painted were household names and Jane Austen would have been wholly familiar with them and no doubt interested to view their portraits painted in such a vibrant manner. But something else connects Austen and Lawrence. Quite simply, he was one of her greatest admires, knew Sir Walter Scott (also an admirer)and received advance copies of popular novels from her publisher, John Murray. Here is an account of his literary tastes by Miss Elizabeth Croft which was contained in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter Bag published in 1906:
From the year 1810 to 1821, Sir Thomas was in habits of the most constant and intimate intercourse with me and my friends in Hart Street, dropping in at all hours, and especially of an evening when too much tired with the labours of the day to accept the invitations of gayer and more exalted friends…Frequently he would bring with him the novel or periodical of the day-and who ever read like him! Most of Sir Walter Scot’s works we had the delight of hearing from his lips and I can never forget the charm of his reading “Marmion” to us. They were all sent to him and a few other chosen friends by the author before they were published, and at the same time that a copy was sent to George the 4th. Thus we were enabled to laugh in our sleeve at persons who roundly reported that Walter Scot was not the real author…Many of Miss Austen’s novels he also read to us, and she was one of his favourite writers.
Miss Croft, you may care to note ,was the sister of Sir Richard Croft, the unfortunate accoucher to Princess Charlotte,who died in childbirth in 1817 when he was attending her. After attending another difficult birth in February 1818 he killed himself, and here he is recorded by Lawrence,
…the sketch taken as he lay in his coffin. The drawing was done by Lawrence in an attempt to console Miss Croft for her sudden and terrible loss.
Back to the exhibit…..
Lawrence was a talented child,whose father was quick to exploit his talents, showing him off to visitors to his inn, the Bear Hotel at Devizes, most of whom were fashionable society folk who were en route to or from London or Bath. Fanny Burney mentioned him in her diary, for example. The family eventually moved to Bath where he began to establish his reputation as a portraitist. On moving to London he began to attract large commissions, and in 1790 exhibited two great works at the Royal Academy: Miss Farren the actress who was to become the Countess of Derby (see the picture at the head of this post, advertising the exhibit) and above, Queen Charlotte. Recognising a precious talent, George III pressed the Royal Academy to elect Lawrence as a member,and eventually he was admitted when of age, and, in turn, became its president in 1820
A dispute between Caroline of Brunswick and the Prince of Wales about the right to posses Lawrence’s portrait of Lord Chancellor Thurlow( included in the exhibit) seems to have alienated the Prince of Wales and set him against commissioning further work from Lawrence. But that changed with Lawrence’s magnificent portrait of the Prince in the Garter robes, and eventually the Prince was one of Lawrence’s most important patrons. He commissioned the portraits of the political and military leaders concerned in the downfall of Napoleon which were to be hung in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle and this enabled Lawrence to travel across Europe, something no British artist of his stature had been able to do for years due to the wars and the attendant difficulties of travel. Below is his portrait of Tsar Alexander I (not in the exhibit).
And while these large, imposing portraits are mightily impressive, I found I was more drawn to the more domestic and intimate of Lawrence’s works. Below is his pastel of the poet Elizabeth Carter which I found exquisite.
His portraits of women are very sympathetic, and Lawrence had a reputation of being rather a ladies man, becoming romantically involved for example with the actress Sarah Siddon’s two daughters, much to her distress. His portrait of Rosamund Croker, below, is stunning.
And while he is famed for his portraits of children, I confess they mostly leave me cold (low be it spoken). But I do like this portrait of the Marchioness of Londonderry and her son Viscount Seaham because to me she looks ever-so-slighty fed up with her young son’s antics….
The exhibition catalogue, shown below, is published by Yale and is sumptuously illustrated and is also a very good read. Here, on the cover, is Princess Sophia, George IV’s favourite sibling, who had a tragic clandestine love-life in the stultifying atmosphere of her mothers court, giving birth to an illegitimate son in 1800.
But also to be recommended is Michael Levey’s outstanding work on the artist, also published by Yale and shown below. Full of incredible detail, and again sumptuously and comprehensively illustrated I can highly recommend it for anyone wanting to increase their knowledge of the man and his works.
The exhibit is small (and I hated the way the continuity of the exhibition was broken up by the presence of a shop between two of the main rooms) but it is worthwhile making the trip to London to see it ( or to New Haven when the exhibit moves there in 2011) It is wonderful to be given the opportunity to see and reassess Sir Thomas’s works en masse. They are magnificent, sensitive pieces of work, and he deserves to be rehabilitated, in my very humble untutored eye and opinion.