Thomas Lawrence’s portraits

Only three monarchs in English history have been passionate, enlightened connoisseurs of visual art – Henry VIII, Charles I and George IV. All were national disasters: violent tyrant, feckless fantasist, dissolute rake. But in each, political instinct and aesthetic sensibility met in a brilliant choice of artist to spin the image of king and court: Hans Holbein, Anthony van Dyck, Thomas Lawrence.

Our understanding of the Tudor, Stuart and Regency eras is inextricable from the works of these three great portraitists. You can trace in them not only English history but unchanging English patrician physiognomy: the smooth chiselled features and born-to-rule gaze of David and Samantha Cameron going back in consistent line through Lawrence’s gilded youths to Holbein’s swelling nobles.

From a windswept profile of the 50-year-old Prince Regent as what the writer William Hazlitt called “a well-fleshed Adonis” to a cream-and-roses portrait of sparkling debutante Rosamond Croker, which “men stood before in a half circle, admiring its loveliness”, Lawrence fixed 1800s hedonism in a style exuberantly evocative of today’s X-Factor showiness. In the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, Lawrence’s men are a sizzling mix of macho arrogance and peacock finery, his women are flamboyant, erotic manipulators, and everyone flirts with the viewer.

The display opens with the virtuoso-textured work that launched Lawrence’s career, “Elizabeth Farren” (1790). A young actress, incongruously swathed in winter fox furs and kid gloves, hurries through a summer landscape; the impression, enhanced by Farren’s mischievous glance, is that we are catching her as dawn breaks, en route from a clandestine assignation. The portrait has drama, movement, a sense of the fleeting instant, the forbidden glimpse. When 21-year-old Lawrence submitted it to the Royal Academy, ageing president Joshua Reynolds told him, “In you, sir, the world will expect to see accomplished what I have failed to achieve.”

This was 1790: Europe was reeling from the French revolution. Lawrence, with his darting figures, bold colour and glittery highlights, was the man for the moment, and he soon dazzled with individualistic portraits of the emerging elite. In 1793, “Robert Banks Jenkinson”, later prime minister, is an ambitious orator new to the House of Commons: lean, lanky, he swaggers towards us with a direct, smouldering stare, his towering posture and sense of purpose accentuated by props of a classical column, an upright quill and a red drape propelling the black-suited figure into the light – confrontational, mesmerising.

All breathe terrific sexual energy – an allure even more immediate in Lawrence’s drawings. As delineator of the human face in pencil, crayon, chalk, pastel, he was a master of outline and astute detail. The exquisitely posed “Mary Hamilton” sets soft flesh with rising colour in the cheeks, depicted in red chalk, against hard shiny graphite used for an outlandish silk-ribboned Bo-Peep hat. (Lawrence lodged with a milliner and never lost a love of extravagant headgear.) The 52-year-old “Elizabeth, Duchess of Devonshire” – glossy black curls and ostrich feathers framing a wily face lit with rosy tints at lips, eyelids and cheeks – embodies middle-aged, sexually knowing imperiousness. Delicate, blushing “Isabella Wolff” wears a turban and pearl earring, demanding attention for the torsion in her elegant long neck.

Wolff may have been Lawrence’s lover – he lingered for 15 years on a portrait of her in rippling white satin, its pose based on Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl in the Sistine Chapel. But Lawrence’s name was also linked to the Duchess, to Sarah Siddons, to both her daughters, and to the unfortunate Queen Caroline. “He could not write an answer to a dinner invitation without it assuming the tone of a billet doux,” noted a female admirer. “The very commonest conversation was held in that soft, low whisper, and with that tone of deference and interest ... so calculated to please.”

Lawrence’s genius was to dovetail on canvas the theatricality of the age with that soft, low whisper. An innkeeper’s son, he was a child prodigy: by the time he was 10, his father was selling his “likenesses” to customers for half a guinea. “This insidious gift for intimacy ... that instinct to charm and flatter which he had learnt as a child,” observes Richard Holmes in a perceptive catalogue essay, never left him. The informal approach transformed early 19th-century state portraiture: while Napoleon redrew the map of Europe, Lawrence, commissioned by the Prince Regent, crossed the continent capturing the likenesses of its leading military and diplomatic figures.

Rare loans here include a portrait of the Duke of Wellington painted as he was making the transition from war hero to statesman. Harriet Arbuthnot, who commissioned it, noted that “it has all the softness and sweetness of countenance which characterises him when he is in the private society of his friends”. From the Queen’s collection come the monumental “Field Marshal Gebhardt von Blücher”, “Charles, Archduke of Austria” and, best of all – the result of 10 sittings, including one for the hands – “Pope Pius Vll”. His narrow bony face quivering in thought, this peace-loving pontiff is intellectually alert; depicted in crimson velvet and luscious watered-silk, he is shown in a classical rather than ecclesiastical setting, the guardian of civilised values after Napoleonic turbulence.

In Rome, Lawrence was hailed as the English Titian; in Paris, according to Stendhal, “Mr Lawrence’s name is immortal”, while a young Delacroix believed he kept alive “the flame of great painting”. But in Britain he fell from favour rapidly after his death in 1830: he was too sexy for the Victorians, then too lush for the moderns. This show, the first devoted to Lawrence for more than 30 years, reclaims him as a pioneer – like his exact contemporaries John Constable and Walter Scott – of the romantic sensibility. Acclaimed in his lifetime as portrait master, he responded that by contrast “I am perpetually mastered by it – as much the slave of the picture I am painting, as if it had living personal existence, and chained me to it”. Those lifelike qualities, and his own haunted convictions, animate every work here.

‘Thomas Lawrence, Regency Power and Brilliance’, National Portrait Gallery, London, to January 23,

Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, February 24-May 6 2011,

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