Life drawing in purple and a hint of red

Sir Thomas Lawrence

August 11, 2006

From Tom Lawrence, the child prodigy son of an unsuccessful West Country innkeeper, to Sir Thomas Lawrence, president of the Royal Academy and portraitist of the crowned heads of Europe - Lawrence's meteoric career saw his transformation from a provincial portrait painter to an artist of international repute, recognised as one of the greatest of his day. In this handsome book, copiously illustrated in colour and produced to Yale University Press's usual high standards, Michael Levey undertakes a chronological survey of Lawrence's finest achievements within a biographical framework. Levey's previous publications on French and Italian 18th-century painting allow him to place his subject in an international context. And Levey has an easy command of Lawrence's own work and the British art world, which goes back to the pioneering exhibition of the artist's paintings and drawings that he curated at the National Portrait Gallery in 1979 while still director of the National Gallery. In reviewing that exhibition, Sir Oliver Millar, then surveyor of the Queen's pictures, singled out Levey's brilliant introduction to the exhibition catalogue, and it is this earlier achievement that sets the tone for this book.

Levey nicely places Lawrence within his times. Born in 1769, the same year as Wellington and Napoleon and also the year of the first Royal Academy exhibition, Lawrence's death came in 1830, just a few months before that of his greatest patron, King George IV. Levey concentrates on the finest portraits in Lawrence's vast oeuvre. Lawrence had come to London at the age of 18 in 1787. This was a fortuitous moment. Even without the death of Thomas Gainsborough in 1788 and Joshua Reynolds in 1792, Lawrence would have flourished as a portrait painter, such was his impact at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. He succeeded Reynolds as painter to the King at the age of 23 and came to be recognised as the greatest portrait painter of the day.

With the temperament and flair to capture the glamour of the age, Lawrence created the image of Regency high society with his dazzling brushwork and an innovative use of colour. In the course of a working career of more than 40 years in London, he turned out numerous paintings and drawings. Lawrence transformed the genre of children's portraiture, with such endearing images as Pinkie, his elegant full-length portrait of Sarah Moulton, from the 1790s, and his vivacious roundel of the young Calmady sisters from 30 years later. He also demonstrated his outstanding assurance in composing group portraits, including his little seen masterpiece of Sir Francis Baring discussing business with his brother and son-in-law.

Lawrence had an outstanding ability as a draughtsman, unusual among his fellow Academicians. He would begin his portraits by finely drawing in the composition with chalk and would then paint in the head and the main lines of the figure, as can be seen in two unfinished works in the National Portrait Gallery, his superbly realised profile portrait of the Prince Regent and his sympathetic image of William Wilberforce in old age.

One of Lawrence's closest friends was fellow artist Joseph Farington, who performed the role of mentor and adviser. Levey makes good use of Farington's writings in telling his story. In 1807, he acted as a go-between with the banker Thomas Coutts on how to deal with Lawrence's huge debts, amounting to some £,000, a quite staggering sum. In 1820, immediately on the artist's return from the Continent, Farington can be found advising Lawrence that it would be better not to attend the meeting of the Royal Academy at which he was elected president in succession to Benjamin West.

Another good friend was Sir Charles Stewart, half-brother to Castlereagh and adjutant-general to Wellington. His dashing portrait as a hussar in a splendid scarlet and gold uniform catches the glamour of the military hero and is perhaps the finest portrait by Lawrence at the National Portrait Gallery. It was Stewart who encouraged the Prince Regent to lend his patronage to the artist, so leading to the great set of full-length portraits of Allied sovereigns and leading statesmen in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. To complete this series Lawrence travelled on the Continent between 1818 and 1820, visiting Aix, Vienna and Rome. There, he painted perhaps his greatest portrait of all, that of Pope Pius VII, which was seen by his contemporaries to compete successfully with the great painters of the past including Raphael and Titian.

Levey traces the vicissitudes in the artist's posthumous fortunes. He suggests that Lawrence's unwitting identification with the much maligned Prince Regent damaged his reputation in Britain, where his work is better represented in family collections than in museums. American collectors had none of these reservations, and so some of Lawrence's finest portraits now grace the walls of leading American museums. While it is possible to examine superb individual portraits at the National Gallery or Kenwood in London, those in search of a fuller understanding of the artist's work must explore the more comprehensive display at the National Portrait Gallery, or head for Windsor.

As Levey acknowledges, the book does not treat Lawrence's role as a highly important president of the Royal Academy, nor his significance as a collector of old master drawings, nor his position as a patron and supporter of young artists. For the Royal Acad-emy, the reader must turn to James Fenton's new history or to Holger Hoock's wider study of the Academy and the politics of British culture.

Surprisingly, there is no modern study of Lawrence's superb collection of drawings, one of the greatest ever formed. As a promoter of the fortunes of young artists, Lawrence might restrict his role to advice or to letters of introduction, as with the upcoming John Frederick Lewis. But he can also be found bringing out the best in the young Edward Hodges Bailey by commissioning marble busts of his fellow artists, works of outstanding quality.

In tracing Lawrence's reputation and the progress of Lawrence studies over two centuries, Levey concludes with homage to the work of Kenneth Garlick, including his 1989 catalogue of the artist's oil paintings. Now a new generation of academically based scholars are producing studies that look at Lawrence's art in a wider context. As part of this process, a new exhibition of Lawrence's work is proposed for the National Portrait Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art in 2010, almost exactly 30 years after the last great display of his work.

Levey writes with authority and with a relaxed command of language, so that this book forms the most readable and authoritative survey of the life and work of his subject and provides an essential introduction to the Regency art world.

Jacob Simon is chief curator, National Portrait Gallery.

Sir Thomas Lawrence

Author - Michael Levey
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 345
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 300 10998 9

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