For all the wonderful extravagance of his portraiture, Lawrence’s own life appeared—on the surface at least—curiously reserved and restrained. He repeatedly said he never bet on cards, never gambled on horses, never got drunk with friends (all proper Regency male pastimes). Instead, he claimed his favorite reading was Jane Austen, and his most extreme sport was billiards. He never married. Yet he was handsome, flirtatious, and charming to a perilous degree. His great friend and confidant, the painter and diarist Joseph Farington, bluntly called him a “male coquet.” But this does not seem quite to explain the case. An anonymous female admirer wrote more perceptively:
He could not write a common answer to a dinner invitation without it assuming the tone of a billet-doux: the very commonest conversation was held in that soft, low whisper, and with that tone of deference and interest, which are so unusual, and so calculated to please.
A male friend called him simply an “old flirt.”
This insidious gift for intimacy, for making everyone feel special, which Lawrence practiced on both his male and female subjects, was evidently an essential part of his magic as a portrait painter. It was his actor’s ability to enter into all their characters and moods; and also that instinct to charm and flatter, which he had learned as a child. His drawings expressed this same swift and sometimes teasing empathy; while his paintings added those theatrical elements of glamour and gusto that became his trademark.
In an unexpected moment of self- revelation, Lawrence once described his own character as “Genius…infected by Romance, and wasted by Indolence and Languor.” He added that he had the mark of “the Voluptuary,” and that playing around his mouth were “Passions powerful to ruin, to debase, or to elevate the Character.” As suits a Romantic figure, there remains a kind of mysterious doubleness about his identity, a secretive and possibly bisexual quality that runs both through his life and through the ironic subtext of many of his portraits. He once wrote a curious little camp poem, “On Being Left Alone after Dinner,” which contains the lines: “I wish the sex were kinder grown,/And when they find a man alone,/Would treat him like a woman.”
In 1797, when both his adoring parents suddenly died, he had some kind of emotional breakdown, embarked on a hysterical affair with both of Sarah Siddons’s daughters simultaneously, threatened suicide, and produced his extraordinary androgynous drawing Satan as the Fallen Angel. Subsequently Lawrence was the subject of endless tattle and gossip, and his name was linked romantically with many of his sitters (although only the female ones), from the Duchess of Devonshire to the unhappy Queen Caroline. (Indeed Lawrence had to sign a legal deposition disclaiming adulterous opportunity, before Caroline’s trial for divorce in Parliament).
Most mysterious of all was the beautiful Isabella Wolff (another divorcée). Isabella may indeed have been his mistress, and her stunning silvery portrait—the most Sibylline he ever painted—conveniently took Lawrence some thirteen years to complete. Albinson shrewdly points to Isabella’s luxurious midriff in the picture—“the painting betrays an anxiety about pregnancy and generation”—and even suggests they had a child together, Herman St John Wolff, though the documentation remains inconclusive.
Another mystery was Lawrence’s finances. Despite his ever-increasing fees, Lawrence remained in debt for his whole life. By 1807 his bankers, Coutts, reckoned he owed some £20,000. Exactly what he spent his money on remains an enigma. Perhaps it was his excellent collection of Old Master drawings—eventually sold to Queen Victoria to pay his creditors long after his death. His friend Farington mildly suggested that he was no good at accounting for his money, and probably gave much of it away.
Certainly Lawrence had an acute and generous eye for fellow artists, and his letters show the encouragement and support that he gave to J.M.W. Turner, Richard Parkes Bonnington, the naturalist John James Audubon, and the poet and engraver William Blake. In fact Lawrence was one of the very few contemporaries who praised and actually purchased a copy of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He also kept a copy of Blake’s drawing The Wise and Foolish Virgins on a special table.
His studios were always ultra- fashionable. His first, at 41 Jermyn Street, is now appropriately occupied by the tradesman’s entrance of Fortnum & Mason. The demand for portrait sittings was as relentless as consultations with a modern Harley Street specialist (and similarly priced). Lawrence would undertake as many as five two-hour sittings a day, charging a 50 percent deposit. Consequently, much of his correspondence was concerned with the failure to deliver finished portraits, sometimes drawn out over many years. Lord Ellenborough once threatened to prosecute him in the courts for refusing to complete a painting of his wife. Another aggrieved client challenged Lawrence to a dawn duel in Hyde Park.
Alfred, one of Lawrence’s most faithful assistants, slyly suggested that unfinished portraits had their own uses, especially with female clients of a certain age:
Some of them do come in a huff, but they always go away pleased, for my master brings out the picture, and says it needs only be altered in the dress, and then they think they are handsomer than ever. One old lady came the other day and asked to see a picture of her begun twenty years ago…. Do finish it Sir Thomas, it is such an excellent likeness.
Much changed for Lawrence after 1810, with the death of his arch-rival, John Hoppner. He soon executed his first portrait of the Prince Regent (later George IV), became the official court painter, and moved into grandiose apartments in Russell Square. In 1814 he was commissioned by the prince to paint all the European leaders of the wartime coalition against Napoleon. This took him intermittently to Paris, Vienna, and Rome over a period of some five years. He embarked on his huge, ambitious portraits of the mighty soldiers, statesmen, monarchs, clerics, and self-important princelings of the age, and these made him an international star. He was knighted, and began to move in exalted social circles, hobnobbing with the grand and wealthy, and writing long, excited letters to Mrs. Wolff about it all. He was elected president of the Royal Academy in 1820.
To this heady period belong the great series of “swagger portraits,” as they were once dismissively called. Here Lawrence’s natural sense of theater and dynamic style strive for a new dimension of historic resonance. Three of these enormous portraits, each about nine feet tall, were exclusively on loan from the Waterloo Chamber, Windsor Castle, where they form part of the Royal Collection. Sadly they have not made it to Yale, but are superbly reproduced in the catalog.
Each is closely associated with the defeat of Napoleon on the battlefield. One can practically hear the martial roar of Field Marshal von Blücher sending his troops into the fray, while the quiet, resolute elegance of the Archduke Charles of Austria commemorates one of the master strategists of the allied coalition. Both are still swathed in the smoke of battle, glamorously celebrating a defining, international victory. But perhaps most subtly impressive of all is the shrunken figure of Pope Pius VII, the man who endured Napoleon’s prisons for four years but survived as a moral center of European opposition and eventually brought back all the plundered art treasures to Italy. It is a complex, masterly study of both fortitude and cunning.
On his return home, Lawrence performed the same magical stagecraft on government figures such as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, and George Canning. Although sometimes undoubtedly stagy, they reflect the rhetoric of the Regency, and serve their proper purpose as official “portraits of record,” splendid and monumental. Lawrence’s original, graphic genius wonderfully informs the best of these later works. It is fascinating to see how the fixed, hawk-like glare of his hypnotic portrait of Wellington has emerged from the softer and more psychologically subtle drawings of the same subject.
Lawrence’s old sense of freedom and daring was developed even more fully in his later portraits of women. He had previously shown the glowing sexual radiance of Frances Hawkins, shamelessly reflected in the hot, loving glance of her illegitimate child and the panting of her large pet dog: a kind of triangular circuit of passion. Now he gave the pert, seductive charm of Lady Selina Meade, the arch amusement of the Princess Sophia, or the tender, teasing melancholy of Rosamund Croker a rich and sumptuous life all their own.
The ravishing portrait of Margaret, Countess of Blessington (originally a penniless beauty just like Nelson’s Emma Lady Hamilton), is one of the most glorious, brazen pictures Lawrence ever painted. Lord Byron, when he first met Lady Blessington in Italy, instantly identified her as the subject of Lawrence’s picture and the archetype of the English Regency belle. All London was “raving” over it, and over her, the author of Don Juan noted appreciatively. Even better, she gave his own mistress, Countess Guiccioli, “a furious fit of Italian jealousy.”
When Lawrence first began to exhibit in Paris, toward the end of his meteoric career in the legendary “English” Salons of 1824–1827, he was greeted as one of the great, liberating harbingers of British Romanticism, and awarded the Légion d’Honneur. He was seen as part of that movement that overturned all the old restrictions of classicism: the poetry of Lord Byron, the experimental science of Sir Humphry Davy, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the landscapes of Constable, and the portraits of Lawrence. “The English manner enjoys a triumph in Paris,” wrote the young Stendhal, “Mr. Lawrence’s name is immortal.”
Lawrence’s pictures of women, and of children, took his viewers by storm. His ebullient picture Laura Anne and Emily Calmady, in which the youngest girl is practically kicking out of the picture frame, suggested a whole new uninhibited approach to childhood. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was vindicated.
Delacroix enthused: “Nobody has ever painted eyes, women’s eyes particularly, so well as Lawrence…. He is inimitable.” Lawrence himself, contrary to any idea of easy facility, always spoke with disarming modesty about his own art of portraiture, which he felt he had never entirely mastered: “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.”
And as for The Red Boy in his scarlet velveteens? From the superb catalog we learn that he is not simply the beautiful chocolate box child, as so easily assumed. In fact he is a beautiful doomed child. Charles Lambton would die aged thirteen. He is a child who will never live to grow up. Moreover we learn that he was quickly assumed to be an imaginary portrait of the dreaming youthful Byron, the very soul of English Romanticism. This was partly why he was reproduced across Europe, and then America, as a symbol of eternal hope and youthful promise. If that is chocolate box, it may be exactly what we need right now. “Thomas Lawrence: Regency, Power, and Brilliance” is a wonderful, inspiring exhibition.