The prodigiously talented painter Thomas Lawrence was a hugely feted artist during his own lifetime. Compared by adoring critics to Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, he was also championed enthusiastically by Delacroix and Turner and his funeral in 1830 was a national event, commented on by Charles Dickens and painted by Turner himself ('Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Sketch from Memory' exhibited 1830). Yet many visitors to this new exhibition of Lawrence's oevre may not previously have even been aware of his existence.
His subjects included not only the aristocracy, but also rulers and royalty as well as the stage stars who were the celebrities of the day. A brilliant draughtsman in many media he was truly a master of surfaces which he executed with confidence and Ã©lan. Born the son of an innkeeper he was a child prodigy who sketched 'likenesses' of the inn's customers for a fee. Moving to London at the age of 18 his talent gained him early prestigious commissions and by the age of only 20 he was painting members of the royal family.
So what has happened to his reputation since his death? For many visitors, the National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition of Lawrence's work ('Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power And Brilliance') will be the first time they have encountered his paintings. How and why did his work come to be forgotten and does his reputation deserve to be resurrected today?
Even during his lifetime Lawrence's standing began to decline after a number of episodes of personal scandal. Having been associated with a number of famous and wealthy women, an affair with both daughters of Sarah Siddons, the famous actress, damaged his reputation with the public.
The Victorian era disapproved of Regency 'decadence' and Lawrence's alluringly sensual portraits seemed to typify this hedonism. And yet much of his work failed to please modernist tastes - his somewhat mawkish portraits of children (such as 'Laura Anne and Emily Calmady') ironically appearing too like those sickly Victorian efforts.
It's unfortunate that Lawrence's technical mastery actually seems to have undermined his reputation, because his portraits have far more to offer than just surface. His subjects' direct gaze, and his loose paint handling was unusual and innovative, giving his male sitters (perhaps an ill-judged term as many of Lawrence's portrait subjects stand, confidently) great authority.
However most notable it is the empathy in the portraits of some of his female subjects, particularly those older women such as Queen Charlotte whose husband King George III had just descended into an unknown madness. This empathetic portrait of the tired queen, who had found the painter to be a little presumptuous, was perhaps a little too honest. The palace rejected it and Lawrence was never paid his fee. However when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790 it received the praise of the critics and Lawrence's reputation was made, aged only 21. It's a reputation which certainly deserves a re-appraisal today.
If you'd like to read more on Thomas Lawrence, then the National Gallery Catalogue of the exhibition is excellent.
Article Copyright: Anna Bregman