Thomas Lawrence, 1769 – 1830
One of the people I am considering including in my next-book-but-one (about 18th Century heroes who have missed out on the spotlight of fame) is Thomas Lawrence. At first sight the inclusion of Thomas Lawrence, knight of the realm, painter in ordinary to His Majesty King George III, and a President of the Royal Academy, may seem somewhat incongruous. But his inclusion is justified just in order to show that the spotlight of fame can be turned off as well as on – Lawrence enjoyed fame in his lifetime but fell out of favour during the Victorian era, largely as a result of his perceived immoral lifestyle. Nowadays, we have come to expect that our painters lead a bohemian lifestyle – to drink, experiment with drugs, fornicate and generally set a bad example. It is seen, no doubt, as being part of the artist ‘exploring the inner self’. But Lawrence had the misfortune to be followed almost immediately by the moralising Victorians, who tut-tutted at his indiscretions, and deemed him unsuitable and unworthy of praise. And so, the spotlight was turned off, and this magnificent artist has never quite regained his place alongside the British Greats of the world of painting.
It was not always thus: after Gainsborough died in 1788 and Reynolds died in 1792 Lawrence seemed to have taken over their mantle (although many would argue that he was a far finer portrait painter than Reynolds). He became the artist of his generation, the one commissioned to paint the portraits of all the movers and shakers of the Regency era. And all this from a man who was largely self-taught.
He was born in Bristol on 13 April 1769, one of only five out of sixteen children in the family to survive childhood. His father moved from Bristol to run the Black Bear Inn at Devizes, and the precocious young Thomas was already proving something of an artist and an entertainer. Father would apparently ask the tavern’s customers ‘Which would you rather, young Tom recite a verse or paint your likeness?’
The tavern-keeping venture was a failure and his father was declared bankrupt. This left Thomas, then ten years of age, as the family bread-winner. He moved to Bath, aged eleven, and exhibited a precocious talent for portraiture, charging three guineas a sitting. He was entirely self-taught, using pastels at first before graduating to oils. His reputation soon spread and, still in his teens, he moved to London and installed his parents in a house in Greek Street and opened a studio at 41 Jermyn Street. Not bad for an eighteen-year old!
He enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy but that sojourn did not last long – portrait painting was his only real interest. Over the ensuing thirty years he became the pre-eminent artist of his generation. His portraits of Nelson, Wellington and George IV are iconic representations of some of the great figures of Regency England.
Here are a few more which I admire. Left to right, Frederic Lock, Margaret Countess of Blessington and Lady Selena Meade:
Lawrence had a fairly alarming habit – at least, alarming for young and impressionable female sitters – of starting a commission by invading their personal space, coming right up alongside them and, from a distance of just a few inches, sketching a specific detail such as the nose or eyes. It must have been unnerving for anyone not used to feeling on their neck the warm breath of an adult male! No wonder half the female sitters look as though they have something very specific on their minds…
And here is Sarah Siddons (a regular sitter, even though he was knocking off both her daughters!) and a splendid portrait of Elizabeth Farren (later Countess of Derby).
With Lawrence it seems that it was not so much a case of falling in love, so much as falling in love too often, famously with two of the daughters of the actress Sarah Siddons at much the same time. He alternated between the two sisters, Sally and Maria, and on different occasions proposed marriage to them both. The affairs caused enormous hurt to the family and at one stage this led him to have a complete nervous breakdown. In all likelihood Sarah Siddons herself held a torch for the charming artist, and certainly Lawrence seemed enraptured by her as well, painting her portrait in at least fourteen occasions. The rumours got so bad that in 1804 Mr Siddons felt compelled to take out an advertisement in the newspapers of the day, expressly denying that his wife was having an affair with Lawrence. It is perhaps odd that the denial came from Mr Siddons, rather than from his wife – or indeed from Lawrence himself. Some years later, Lawrence was to fall head over heels in love with Sarah’s niece, Fanny Kemble, a girl who, more than any other, closely resembled Sarah Siddons in her youth. Curious, n’est ce pas?
Some of the pain and anguish, and burning sadness, appears in the portraits he painted. By and large he seemed to excel at painting beautiful people, male or female. He knew how to bring out the best in good-looking sitters. However, he was hopeless at finishing projects; on one occasion taking twelve years to complete a commission and, on his death, his studio was found to be littered with unfinished paintings, started and then abandoned.
Over the years he painted portraits of royalty, including the one on the right of Queen Charlotte. She hated it so much she refused to accept delivery of it and it remained in his studio until he died. Why didn’t she like it? Probably because it captured something of the sadness of the woman behind the royal mask – and maybe she just didn’t like being shown as a sort of Snow Queen, locked away inside her palace.
In time Lawrence was admitted to the Royal Academy, and in 1820 was made President of that august body. He had previously been appointed ‘painter-in-ordinary’ to George III, was knighted in 1814, and travelled through Europe at the request of the Prince Regent painting foreign leaders such as Napoleon ll, the Pope, the Tsar of Russia and miscellaneous Arch-Dukes, Kings and Emperors.
At the time of his death, Lawrence appears to have been at the height of his powers (but was nevertheless heavily in debt). He died on 7th January 1830 and almost immediately seems to have been airbrushed from history. Perhaps it was the Victorian reaction to the excesses and immorality of the Regency era, but the fact remains that from a height of popularity which far exceeded Constable and Turner, he then slumped into relative obscurity. Today, we may know his paintings, but we rarely see his name.
Lawrence was buried two weeks after his death, in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral. The artist Turner was one of the mourners, and he painted this sketch of the funeral from memory. Almost immediately there was a reaction against Thomas and his legacy. He went out of fashion totally, and the repugnance felt by society over his behaviour towards Sarah Siddons and her daughters was re-ignited in 1904 when his personal letters were published. The correspondence shows a highly emotional side to Lawrence, and he writes of his uncontrollable feelings and his anguish, while Mrs Siddons talks of ‘this wretched madman’s frenzy’ and of his ‘flying off in ANOTHER whirlwind’.
On the anniversary of his death, spare a thought for poor Tom: a much underrated artist! Yes, I think he will get a place in ‘Georgian Giants – the unsung heroes of the Industrial Revolution’. Pen & Sword Books are due to publish it later in the year.
Meanwhile a break from blogging for a couple of weeks – I am off on a tour to Vietnam via Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand on board the Good Ship Diamond (Princess Line) lecturing on a few more novel aspects of 17th and 18th century history. Well, novel for me: The maiden voyage of the Batavia (a tale of mass murder, mutiny and rape); Piracy in the Indian Ocean; the race between Nicholas Baudin and Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate Australia and to map the coastline of the entire continent; castaways in the Pacific Ocean; and finally, the true story of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty. Why hello, sailors, here I come!