Yale Center for British Art/National Portrait Gallery/Yale University Press, 314 pp., $70.00
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) belongs to the genial “Golden Age” of British portrait painting—the age of Gainsborough, Northcote, Hoppner, Phillips, Beechey, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. But he also bears the intriguing distinction of having been accused of inventing the Chocolate Box School of Regency portraiture.
His luscious treatment of edible young Regency debutantes, sugar-frosted grenadiers, and apple-cheeked babies has frequently provoked sly amusement, if not outright derision. His jealous contemporary Benjamin Robert Haydon observed: “Lawrence…was suited to the age, and the age to him. He flattered its vanities, pampered its weaknesses, and met its meretricious taste.”
One of his most famous paintings, Charles William Lambton, subsequently known as The Red Boy (1825), has frequently graced tins of toffees and shortbread, and in 1969 appeared on the British 4d postage stamp. Wordsworth, the great poet of remembered childhood, said of The Red Boy when it was first exhibited: “Lawrence’s portrait of young Lambton is a wretched histrionic thing; the public taste must be vitiated indeed, if that is admired.” A recent art critic in the London Observer noted dryly: “Lawrence painted children the way Disney does deer.”
This trail of mockery has pursued Lawrence into the twenty-first century. It has been said that his only true artistic successor was the raffish fashion photographer Cecil Beaton. Even the mild-mannered Oxford History of Art: Portraiture (2004), by Shearer West, chose to praise Lawrence by burying him. Though there are thirteen references to his immediate predecessor Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lawrence’s name does not even appear in the index.
The dazzling new exhibition “Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance,” at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, has set out to change all this. It originates from the National Portrait Gallery, London, where it was a startling success last autumn, perhaps partly in reaction to the general mood of financial gloom and gray recession. Just walking into the gallery from a bleak, rain-swept Trafalgar Square was a hugely cheering experience. Lawrence’s pictures flooded the rooms with color, energy, and spectacular self-confidence. Viewers were observed to walk out with a new spring in their step; and one in three with this new expensive catalog under their arm.
The exhibition sets out to show how Lawrence defined and celebrated the most exuberant aspects of the English Regency: its flamboyant high society, its glittering soldiers and statesmen, its glamorous women, its elegant actors and dandies, and—yes—its well-fed children. (No room for the poor, maimed, or starving, though this of course was the period of the Napoleonic Wars and its aftermath.)
The catalog is one of the most splendidly illustrated I have ever seen, with over seventy full-page plates, and numerous details and drawings. These are accompanied by three fine critical essays: a subtle exploration of Lawrence’s changing ideals of Regency “masculinity” (from the foppish to the martial) by Peter Funnell of the National Portrait Gallery; a scholarly defence of Lawrence’s child portraits and the shifting historical conventions of “innocence” (drolly entitled “‘Charming Little Brats’”) by Marcia Pointon; and a wonderfully deft and perceptive analy- sis of Lawrence’s female portraits, by a curator of paintings and sculptures at the Yale Center, Cassandra Albinson.
Albinson’s essay is carefully titled “The Construction of Desire.” It reveals hitherto quite unexpected depths in Lawrence’s play between ideal mythic women (Psyche, the Sibyl) and his actual, extremely worldly sitters, like the actress Sarah Siddons, the notorious Countess Blessington, or Lady Frances Hawkins, the gorgeous Irish mistress of his friend Lord Abercorn. It meditates tactfully on “the conflicting messages of brazenness and softness.” There are brilliant passages on Lawrence’s brush techniques, such as his special method of illuminating female eyes, his way of capturing a flirtatious gaze, or his “flurry of white highlights” on romantically disordered hair, which “indicate visually the underlying inti- mate encounter between artist and sitter.” As the banker-poet Sam Rogers was rumored to have quipped: “If I wanted my mistress painted I would go to Lawrence; if my wife, I would go to [Thomas] Phillips.”
Lawrence himself was no product of the London high life. He was born in Bristol in April 1769, the son of a tavern keeper, and grew up at his father’s celebrated coaching inn, the Black Bear, on the Devizes road in Wiltshire. A beautiful and gifted child, he was considered a prodigy by his parents, able to recite Milton’s Paradise Lost, act scenes from Shakespeare plays, and dash off astonishing pastel drawings of his father’s customers as they sat at table, all by the time he was five years old.
His instinctive skill as a draftsman at catching “likenesses” of his father’s customers (it was noted that he usually took “about seven minutes”), especially the fashionable female ones, was soon remarked on by influential visitors, such as the novelist Fanny Burney. So too was his precocious ability to charm and seduce. By the time Lawrence was ten, his father was already charging for the boy’s drawings and pastels.
When Lawrence was eleven, his father went bankrupt. More keen than ever to exploit his gifts, his parents took him first to Oxford and then to fashionable Bath (the city of Beau Brummell), where characteristically he caught the attention of both Sarah Siddons and the fashionable socialite the Duchess of Devonshire. One begins to sense the kind of obsessive parental grooming that we might now associate with a young tennis star.
Next his parents launched him in London, from rooms off Leicester Square, at the age of seventeen. Here he met the aging president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who took one look at his portfolio and immediately prophesied a great future: “In you, sir… the world will expect to see accomplished what I have failed to achieve.” Lawrence briefly attended the Royal Academy Schools, but it is thought this apprenticeship lasted less than three months—the only institutional training he ever had.
From then on Lawrence’s professional success was meteoric. He was elected associate of the Royal Academy of Arts at the age of twenty-two, Painter-in-Ordinary to King George III at twenty-three, a full member of the Royal Academy at the age of twenty-five, made a baronet in his mid-forties, and elected president of the Royal Academy in 1820 at the age of fifty-one. His earliest pastel portraits at the Black Bear Inn had been sold for half a guinea. Some of his last portraits in oils went for nine hundred each.
Lawrence had almost no serious artistic apprenticeship as a boy. Yet one of the most striking revelations of the exhibition is that, from the very beginning, he was a brilliant delineator of the human face in chalk, crayon, pencil, or pastel. His drawings were from the start confident, exuberant, and above all witty. Later they also became psychologically acute, subtle, and tenderly empathetic.
There is no real explanation of this phenomenon, though one is reminded that this was, after all, the age of youthful genius par excellence: Chatterton, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, even the chemist Sir Humphry Davy. (Davy’s career pattern in science was almost exactly parallel to Lawrence’s: he became president of the Royal Society in 1820, and indeed was painted appropriately by Lawrence to celebrate that very achievement.) In fact Lawrence had already been mentioned in an essay on “child prodigies” by the critic Daines Barrington as early as 1781.
What he was already capable of is shown by the exquisite, witty, sophisticated drawing of his early friend and mentor Mary Hamilton and her amazing Bo-Peep hat. It was executed by Lawrence in 1789, at the age of nineteen, when he was first starting to exhibit at the Royal Academy. It is part fashion plate and part romantic mood study. To the fine mesh of black chalk, he has added flushed highlights in red (a favorite technique), like too much excitement rising into her lips and cheeks. The effect is deliberately theatrical, dressy, and provocative. Mary’s pose is self-conscious, and curiously teasing. It may be inspired by the pre- Revolutionary aristocratic fashion for playing pastoral shepherdesses, much favored by Marie-Antoinette. But it could also be a sly satire on them (the Bastille fell this year). In fact, is the beautiful Mary Hamilton about to burst out laughing?
A similar, teasing ambiguity attends his strange and wonderful drawing of Mrs. Papandriek (1789). It was executed at Windsor Castle, where Lawrence was officially painting the aging Queen Charlotte. Refused further sittings by the impatient and irritable monarch, the ever-resourceful Lawrence asked her young lady-in-waiting Mrs. P to model the royal jewels, posing with bare arms in an anteroom. To amuse the pretty Mrs. P, and probably to flirt with her as well, Lawrence suggested she put on her most fashionable hat and bring her little boy for his portrait too. The result is a brilliant, witty study in Regency style and manners that prompts the question: Is Mrs. P more proud of her child or her hat? Is motherhood or millinery more important?
For the first seventeen years in London, between 1788 and 1805, Lawrence’s portraits were continuously prominent at the Royal Academy exhibitions. Although sometimes mocked and criticized, he continued to develop this new Romantic look. He plunged into the heady Regency world of aristocracy, fashion, and theater, but also found time for striking pieces of political reportage, such as his remarkably dramatic drawing of the young radical Thomas Holcroft and his supporter, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, at the treason trials in the Old Bailey in 1794. Again, Lawrence has chosen an intensely theatrical moment: Holcroft—on a capital charge—has just been found not guilty. Male friendship in adversity had great emotional significance for Lawrence, and the double portrait became a favorite motif.
For the young women of the time, Lawrence’s sense of Romantic style and flamboyance often outran the tastes of even the most fashionable. The dazzling, airy portrait of the thirty-year-old actress Elizabeth Farren announced his triumphant arrival at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790. Her fresh, seductive figure is offset by an astonishing and provocative display of textures: muslin, fur, satin, and silk, and above all perhaps her limp, languorous, chamois gloves. Each is rendered with sharp, voluptuous appreciation.
During these same momentous years, following the French Revolution and the declaration of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Lawrence also identified a new, swaggering masculine style emerging among the young men of the Regency. Significantly it was “Byronic,” some ten years before Byron actually adopted it himself. Dark, dandyish, dashing, brooding—as in his explosive sketch of his fellow artist Richard Westall—it combined an extraordinary mixture of male arrogance and almost feminine beauty, emphasized by vivid clothes, peacock hairstyles, and smoldering glances.
Here Lawrence was painting his own generation, and effectively bringing it onto the stage of history. The images are powerful, confident, and confrontational. He supplied them with stormy or melodramatic backgrounds, dashed in with fast, free brushstrokes, as if liberating them from an old world of conventions. In contrast with the previous generation of artists—the smoothness of Reynolds or the feather-light touch of Gainsborough—he rendered their clothes with thickly applied paint, strongly contrasted colors, and glittering, almost metallic, highlights. With these techniques, Lawrence expressed a new age of patriotism, flamboyance, and bold individuality.