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Sir Thomas Lawrence
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The greatest portrait painter in Europe of his time, Sir Thomas Lawrence is famous for his portraits of British royalty and aristocracy during the Regency era and his portraits of the crowned heads of Europe and their military and political leaders who led the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in 1815. Equally accomplished as a draftsman, Lawrence was also a discerning collector of Old Master Drawings, assembling one of the best private collections of the time. He was born in Bristol in 1769. After a few years his innkeeper father moved the family to Devizes, on road from London to Bath, to run an inn. The venture was not successful, leading to the father’s bankruptcy in 1780, with Lawrence’s precocious talent at portrait drawings supporting the family after they settled in Bath that year. His formal and artistic education was limited, although he did receive lessons in working with pastels and oil paints from the Bath painter William Hoare (ca. 1707-1792).. Lawrence’s copy in pastels of Raphael’s (1483-1520) Transfiguration (1516-1520, Rome: Vatican Museums) made at age 13 won a prize from the Royal Society of Art in 1785. As a teenager he drew the portrait of the famous actress Mrs. Sarah Siddons (1755-1831); he would create several portraits of her during his career, including a drawing from around 1790 in the Fine Arts Museums’ collection (Garlick p. 229). Lawrence would later have romances with two of her daughters. After moving to London in 1787, he studied oil painting at the Schools of the Royal Academy of Art for three months. The Academy accepted seven of his portraits in pastels that year for its annual exhibition, as well as oil portraits the following two years, which led to a summons to Windsor Castle to paint the portraits of Britain’s Queen Charlotte (1744-1818; London: National Gallery) and Princess Amelia (1783-1810; British Royal Collection). His exhibition of the full-length portrait of the Queen at the 1790 Academy annual exhibition, along with the full-length portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren (later Countess of Derby, ca, 1759-1829; New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) and ten other portraits, established Lawrence as an important portrait painter at the age of 21. The members of the Royal Academy elected him as an associate in 1791 at age 22 and as a full member in 1794 after he turned 25, the youngest permitted age. Lawrence had already been appointed as “Painter-in-Ordinary” to King George III (1738-1820) succeeding Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Over the next two decades Lawrence had an apparently-successful career as he received a continuing stream of portrait commissions and exhibited annually at the Academy. But his perfectionism left many commissions unfinished and his financial affairs were poorly managed, and by 1897 he had debts of over £20,000. The banker Thomas Coutts (1735-1822) advised bankruptcy, which Lawrence declined. The deaths of his rivals George Romney (1735-1802) and John Hoppner (1758-1810) allowed Lawrence to raise his prices, which ameliorated his financial distress. Then his portrait of Major General Charles Stewart (1778-1854, later 3rd Marquis of Londonderry) from around 1810 (lost?) led to two more portraits and their friendship. Stewart persuaded George the Prince Regent (1762-1830, who then ruled for his incapacitated father) to sit for Lawrence in 1814 (private collection). In celebration of the 1814 victory over the French, Russian Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) and Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770-1840) and their generals Count Matvei Ivanovich Platov (1751-1818) and Field Marshall Gebhardt von Blücher (1742-1819) were in London, along with Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) and Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich (1773-1859). The Prince Regent commissioned Lawrence to paint the portraits of all of them. He finished the portraits of the latter four in time to show them in the Royal Academy’s 1815 exhibition. All the portraits were eventually hung in the Waterloo Chamber of Windsor Castle, (built 1830-1831). The Prince Regent knighted Lawrence in 1815. He resumed his commission from the Prince Regent in 1818, traveling to Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen, Germany) to finish the portraits of the King Friedrich Wilhelm and Tsar Alexander. Lawrence then proceeded to Vienna, where he completed more portraits and went next to Rome to paint the portraits of Pope Pius VII (1742-1823) and his chief minister Cardinal Ercole Consalvi (1757-1824). Lawrence returned to London in 1820, where he was elected President of the Royal Academy. The former Prince Regent, now King George IV, awarded him a gold medal and chain. Lawrence was sent by the King to Paris in 1825 to paint the portraits for King Charles X (1757-1836) and Louis Antoine, the Dauphin of France (1775-1844) for the Waterloo Chamber, where he was made a member of the French Legion of Honor. Lawrence died suddenly in January 1830, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He left substantial debts; the contents of his studio and his collection of drawings were sold to satisfy his debts (excluding some 150 unfinished portraits returned to sitters). The public saw many of the Waterloo portraits for the first time at a memorial exhibition in 1830 at the British Institution. (TNB 6/2015) Selected bibliography: Albinson, A. Cassandra, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz, eds., Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brillance. Exhibition catalog. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. Levey, Michael. Sir Thomas Lawrence. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.