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Power Portraits

Sir Thomas Lawrence

by Michael Levey
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies inBritish Art/Yale University Press, 345 pp., $75.00

1.

The twenty-four portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence that now hang in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle represent an act of royal patronage unique in the history of British art. Not even Henry VIII’s employment of Holbein or Charles I’s of Van Dyck bears comparison with the scale of the project and the imaginative vision the future George IV displayed when he commissioned the series.

In the summer of 1814, with Napoleon defeated and exiled to Elba, both Tsar Alexander I of Russia and King William III of Prussia arrived in London for talks. With the two sovereigns at his doorstep, George, then Prince of Wales, decided to commemorate the allied victory over the French by inviting Lawrence—an artist to whom he had only just been introduced—to paint their portraits, along with those of the Duke of Wellington, the Russian general Matvei Platov, and the Prussian field marshal Gebhardt von Blücher.1 Building on this idea, the project soon expanded to encompass all the sovereigns in the Quadruple Alliance and the generals, diplomats, and aides-de-camp who were then assembling in Vienna for the peace congress. To enhance Lawrence’s status as a representative of the British Crown, the Prince knighted him, giving the artist a diplomatic status that, in the history of art, can only be compared to that which the Hapsburg archduchess Isabella of Brussels conferred on Peter Paul Rubens in 1623.

But Napoleon’s escape from Elba, the Hundred Days, and the Battle of Waterloo delayed Lawrence’s departure. Only in September 1818 did he finally leave England for Aix-la- Chapelle and Vienna, where he painted magnificent full-length portraits of Emperor Francis I of Austria, his brother Archduke Charles, and Field Marshal Karl Philipp zu Schwarzenberg, along with half-length portraits of Prince Metternich, Count Munster, and others. Lawrence then moved on to Rome and in the summer of 1819 executed his unforgettable portrait of Pope Pius VII, as well as that of the Pope’s suave secretary of state, Cardinal Consalvi. As late as 1824 George IV decided to include Charles X and his son the Duke of Angoulême to symbolize the restitution of the legitimate monarchy to France.2

Lawrence’s career spans the French Revolutionary Wars through the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath, from 1790 to 1830. The people he painted in this period afforded him subjects more dramatic and cast on a more heroic scale than any characters he could have found in history or in literature. To us, the Waterloo Chamber may feel like a monument to the reactionary politics of its era, but Lawrence sees these monarchs, warriors, and politicians as titans—men of destiny playing leading parts on the world stage. The installation of the pictures at Windsor emphasizes the theatricality of the series by hanging them above eye level, so that we look up at them, just as in Lawrence’s famous portrait of John Philip Kemble as Coriolanus we see the actor from below as he steps up to the footlights to deliver his lines.

It is no wonder that Lawrence never became a history painter, a genre his contemporaries considered the most prestigious branch of the visual arts. Unlike his portraits of real people, Lawrence’s one essay in imaginative painting, Satan Summoning His Legions, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797, feels contrived—and, worse, irrelevant—to the age in which it was painted. His genius lay in his imaginative response to the drama of high politics and a world at war. When the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (who was often critical of his rival’s paintings) said, “Lawrence was suited to the Age and the Age to Lawrence,” he meant that opportunities were given to Lawrence that came to no other artist of his time.3 Lawrence’s contemporaries appreciated this. When someone deplored Lawrence’s obsession with portraiture, Benjamin West replied:

Do not confound his pictures with mere portraits: painted as his are, they cease to be portraits in the ordinary sense; they rise to the dignity of history, and like similar works by Titian and Vandyke, they may be said to be painted not alone to gratify friends and admirers in the present day, but rather for posterity.

2.

Thomas Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769, the same year as Napoleon and Wellington. As Michael Levey points out in his new study of the painter, “Of the three close contemporaries, each obscurely born and with no particular advantages of family background, Wellington and Napoleon were easily outstripped by Lawrence in terms of precocity and early acclaim.” As the youngest of five children Tom entertained the artists, actors, and aristocrats who stopped at his father’s inn, the Black Bear, at Devizes in Wiltshire on their way to or from Bath by drawing their portraits as the other guests looked on. Fanny Burney, who met him when he was ten years old, described him as “not merely the wonder of their family, but of the times, for his astonishing skill in drawing.”4 Already the great Sir Joshua Reynolds had pronounced him the “most promising genius he had ever met with.” And among the celebrities the prodigy drew were the actors David Garrick and Sarah Siddons.

By the time Thomas was twelve he was supporting his family by turning out cheap portraits in pastel, first in Devizes and then, after 1780 (when his improvident father was declared bankrupt), in Oxford, Weymouth, and finally Bath. By the spring of 1787 the eighteen-year-old had reached London, utterly confident that recognition was his for the asking. Although Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney were all alive, Tom wrote to his mother that excepting Sir Joshua Reynolds, for the painting of a head, “I would risk my reputation with any painter in London.”

And he was right. Only two years after writing those words, at the end of September 1789, Queen Charlotte summoned him to Windsor Castle. The likeness he painted of her then, which is now in the National Gallery in London, ranks among the most effective of all royal portraits. Lawrence shows the Queen bareheaded, seated on a simple chair, with an autumnal view of Eton in the distance. Every detail of her costume is meticulously described in paint, from the pale lilac silk of her dress (which in reality had been gray) to the large jewels in her bracelet, among them a miniature portrait of the King. So seductive is Lawrence’s delight in rendering colors and textures that as we pore over the details we may fail to notice that the image also conveys a subtle political message.

The Queen sat for Lawrence at a moment when the prestige of the British monarchy was at an all-time low. King George III had only recently recovered from his long illness, then diagnosed as insanity. His return to health meant that the country had narrowly avoided a regency under the Prince of Wales, whose dissolute way of life was bringing opprobrium on the royal family. Then too, Lawrence began the portrait only two months after the storming of the Bastille.

In her simplicity and dignity, Lawrence presents the Queen as the embodiment of the nation’s trust in the royal family—or at least whatever was left of it. Although he shows her seated on an ordinary chair, by placing that chair on a low dais he also suggests that she sits on a throne, thus hinting both at the King’s indisposition and the Queen’s loneliness and isolation at that critical time for the monarchy. This may be one reason why both the Queen and the King hated the portrait and refused to take possession of it.

Another possible explanation for the royal dislike of the picture is more straightforward. Lawrence presents Her Majesty as a glamorous gray-haired woman when in reality the forty-six-year-old Queen was dowdy, whiskery, and foul-tempered. Lawrence, to whom she had been unfailingly rude and uncooperative, described her as looking like “an old grey parrot.” Ironically, had he flattered her less, he might well have gained the royal favor shown to his rival William Beechey, whom the Queen appointed her principal painter in 1792. Beechey’s straightforward portrait of the Queen, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797, shows an ordinary (and now elderly) lady holding her Maltese terrier in both arms. She looks like what she was, a frumpy German hausfrau.

What Lawrence is doing here is substituting visual panache for the revelation of character. His career can be charted by a series of such portraits. For Lawrence, a sitter’s merits or accomplishments were usually less important than the appearance they presented to the world. The sitter may or may not have been beautiful or handsome, but Lawrence always makes them seem so. This talent to enhance reality was to ease his progress through the drawing rooms of London, the country houses of Great Britain, and the courts of Europe.

While it is true that, as Levey insists, Lawrence could paint penetrating character studies, he had an instinctive feeling for nonchalant glamour, a genius for the superficial that was often aided and abetted by his sitters’ shameless exhibitionism, and by their accessories. If you flip quickly through the superb color reproductions in Levey’s book, what you notice first are the feathers and pearls, silks and chiffons, turbans and tiaras. In a typical Lawrence portrait of a male aristocrat, the subject does not appear consciously to pose, but is caught off guard, artfully disposing himself against a soaring column or allowing his fingertips to rest lightly on a handy balustrade. If he is a soldier, he is seen from below, romantically silhouetted against a stormy sky or the smoke of battle, enveloped in his greatcoat or perhaps carrying a field marshal’s baton.

Unless his female sitters are shown looking deep into the eyes of the painter (Lawrence was a very handsome man) they luxuriate on the softest divans, hardly aware that their portrait is being painted at all. The end product never suggests that Lawrence laboriously drew a likeness straight onto the canvas and then worked up the portrait over weeks, months, and even years (as was usually the case) but looks as though he dashed it off over a weekend, perhaps while staying as the sitter’s guest in their country seat.

We must not, however, confuse the sophisticated veneer of his portraits with insincerity. Lawrence may have been a virtuoso technician but he did not betray or compromise his talents for profit. He worked slowly, first drawing the sitter’s face in detail on the canvas, and then filling in the color inch by inch. The sheer sensuous pleasure he took in the handling of paint and his voluptuous enjoyment in the laying in of colors and rendering of textures can’t be faked. As Levey shows us again and again, Lawrence’s attention to finish arose from his delight in descriptive detail and his “gift of communicating that delight in paint.”

  1. 1

    Originally the series was to hang in the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House.

  2. 2

    After George’s death in 1830 his successor William IV built a magnificent state banqueting room at Windsor to display the pictures. They can be seen on public tours of the castle, but only from a distance.

  3. 3

    Quoted in Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954), p. 14.

  4. 4

    Frances Burney (Madame d’Arblay), Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, edited by her niece (London: Henry Colburn, 1854), Vol. 1, p. 263.

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