Power Portraits

Sir Thomas Lawrence

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

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. 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.

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 …

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