Andrew Lambirth

Direct observation

Although he was the leading portrait painter of Regency England, Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) has somehow slipped beneath the catch-net of modern public recognition.

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Although he was the leading portrait painter of Regency England, Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) has somehow slipped beneath the catch-net of modern public recognition.

Although he was the leading portrait painter of Regency England, Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) has somehow slipped beneath the catch-net of modern public recognition. He was the son of a Bristol innkeeper, who moved with his family to Devizes in 1773 to take over the Black Bear public house, and by 1780 young Lawrence was charming all and sundry with what Fanny Burney called ‘his astonishing skill in drawing’. His precocious talent came in handy when his father was declared bankrupt and Lawrence became the family breadwinner with his pencil profiles and pastels. By 1786 he had begun to work in oils and moved to London the following year. He was almost entirely self-taught, building successfully on innate skills of eye and hand, and an ability to take risks. He became an extraordinarily fluid painter of great dexterity and some originality.

As if to make up for past neglect, this is a substantial show, taking up more space than most temporary NPG exhibitions, expanding into the galleries usually reserved for the permanent collection. It begins with a recently rediscovered self-portrait, painted when the artist was in his late teens, and then moves into an extended section of works on paper which provides ample proof of Lawrence’s brilliance as a draughtsman.

He much admired Sir Joshua Reynolds, and it’s clear he took the older artist’s advice in applying himself to nature rather than imitating the Old Masters, for his work is firmly grounded on direct observation. Here are exquisite drawings in red and black chalk or graphite, such as the portrait of Mary Hamilton in a feathered and beribboned hat and the lovely profile of Lawrence’s muse Isabella Wolff. Note, too, the sensitive portrait of Fuseli. One of Lawrence’s most innovative techniques was drawing in chalks on primed canvas. This was a traditional preliminary for oil painting, but he developed it for highly finished portrait drawings. ‘Countess Therese Czernin’ and the double portrait of the Bloxam boys, Lawrence’s nephews, are fine examples of this technique.

Off to the right are a couple of rooms given over to Lawrence’s meteoric arrival on the London art scene in the 1790s. At once you can sense the magnetic spell he cast: the freshness of his brushwork and his vivacious characterisation still make an immediate impact, backed up by a relish for texture and the glamour of Romanticism. Lawrence in many ways was on the cusp: drawing inspiration from the 18th-century tradition of the Grand Manner, as exemplified by Reynolds, but also moving into the more exotic and turbulent waters of the contemporary taste for the sublime, with stormy landscape backgrounds and exaggerated compositional devices. Look at the dashing portrait of John, Lord Mountstuart, he of the lumpy calves and Spanish costume, and (for some, including the King) the rather too revealing tight pantaloons. By contrast, there’s an excellent character study of the antiquarian Richard Payne Knight, and opposite a full-length of Queen Charlotte. The frankness of characterisation in this portrait is arresting: it shows great delicacy of feeling for a 20-year-old.

Next to the Queen is an even bolder work: ‘Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby’. This sophisticated full-length portrait of the leading comic actress of the day is wonderfully spontaneous and impudent. The sitter’s flirtatious look is compounded by the sensuality with which Lawrence has painted the different materials of her outfit: muslin, fox-fur, kid gloves, blue ribbon. The way white paint has been laid on to depict the movement and fall of light on her fur-trimmed cloak is remarkable — to a certain extent descriptive of the folds of the material (which now looks like satin), it is also distinctly abstract and gestural in the impasto build-up of white on grey. Elsewhere in this section are various portraits of self-regarding young men verging on the foppish, such as Arthur Atherley.

Lawrence had proved himself as good at men as at women, incisive and compelling in his imagery, seductive in his handling of paint. As the visitor moves into the second half of the exhibition, beyond the small shop, the grand paintings of Lawrence’s maturity take over, evocations of the great and good, the fashionable and the not-so-good, bolstered by the plushy richness of stuffs: velvet, satin and silk, predominantly in creams and reds. But these are not mere surface studies, for Lawrence’s understanding of human nature deepened appreciably as he grew older, and, however informal his brushstrokes could be, his attention to personality was scrupulous.

Look at the great triumvirate of portraits in the next room: ‘Pope Pius VII’, ‘Charles, Archduke of Austria’ and ‘Field Marshal Gebhardt von Blücher’. These three magnificent paintings, on loan from The Royal Collection, were commissioned by the Prince Regent who sent Lawrence to Europe to paint the heads of state and military leaders after the allied victory over Napoleon. Of this memorable trio, the portrait of Pius VII, with its great sensitivity balancing heroic pretensions, its depiction of temporal power set against spiritual wisdom, has long been acclaimed as Lawrence’s supreme masterpiece. The artist himself thought it was probably ‘the best I have painted’.

Other delights include ‘Charles William Lambton’, famous study of the sweetness of youth distracted, and the equally famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington — looking straight out at the viewer, confrontational but not aggressive. The final room deals with the Court, the Academy (Lawrence became President of the Royal Academy in 1820) and Society. Here is another great trio, this time of women: Princess Sophia, the Marchioness of Londonderry (with her son) and a moving study of potent age in ‘Mary Digges, Lady Manners’.

There were no young people in the exhibition when I visited, more’s the pity. This is painting of very high quality, but it’s probably dismissed by impatient youth as boring old historical portraiture. Nothing could be further from the truth — both the characterisation and paintwork are lively and inventive. This is an exhibition to be savoured.