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.
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.”
The painter and diarist Joseph Farington, who knew Lawrence well, once told him to raise his prices, warning him that he “worked more like an Amateur who disregarded the time employed than like one who thought of getting money.” Eugène Delacroix remarked that “despite the apparent facility of his style nothing could be more conscientious than his labour.” Even the spontaneity in a portrait by Lawrence is calculated, not real. To a patron who asked that a portrait be more highly finished, Lawrence replied, “[I]…intentionally leave very subordinate parts with less character of finishing” because “the appearance of facility is not undesirable, where the essential details of a work have received obvious care and attention.”
Lawrence’s women are usually slim, long-necked, and impossibly graceful. Unless they are very old and fierce, like the terrifying Lady Robert Manners, their character is rarely the point. Nor do sweet temper, modesty, or diffidence get much attention in Lawrence’s great full-length female portraits. A composite of the kind of thing he did to perfection would show as bird-brained a beauty as ever Jane Austen cast as a foil to one of her clever heroines. She may stand on the steps of her country house, or else be shown silhouetted in the moonlight against a background of lochs and mountains. The mannerist sweep of her long white gown will curve around her feet, while her tiny head might be topped by a millinery confection somewhere between a loosely tied turban and a veil. In case we miss the point, Lawrence might include a fan-tailed peacock on the balustrade behind her. Even supposing that the lady had any character to reveal, Lawrence will contrive to tell us all we need to know about her without the slightest allusion to it. Another artist might probe her personality through a look, a smile, or a turn of the head. Lawrence tells us all we need to know through costume, props, landscape, and pose. And what do we learn? Well, exactly what she wanted us to know: that she was young, beautiful, rich, aristocratic, and dressed divinely.
Lawrence’s career is inexorably bound up with the patronage of the royal family, though it took a long time in coming. In November 1791, despite his dislike of Lawrence’s portrait of his wife, George III directly intervened to ensure that the twenty-one-year-old was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy of Arts.5 His motive simply may have been to assert his role as founding patron of that institution. Then too, Lawrence, who was more or less self-taught, had not at this stage in his career been to Italy, or indeed abroad at all. From the King’s point of view this was a good thing. For although George III seems not to have cared much for Lawrence’s pictures, an early biographer tells us that the King had “an aversion to all artists who claimed fame from having studied abroad; and Lawrence was wholly of home manufacture.”6 Gainsborough had died in 1788. Only three days after the death of Reynolds in February 1792 the King chose Lawrence to succeed him in the prestigious post of Painter-in-Ordinary to His Majesty. And yet, puzzlingly, after Lawrence painted his portrait in that year the King never used him again.7
What is more, while the Prince of Wales’s principal painter John Hoppner was alive the Prince gave no commissions to Lawrence. Even after Hoppner’s death in 1810, His Royal Highness showed no interest in Lawrence’s work until Sir Charles Stewart (later 3rd Marquess of Londonderry) introduced the two men in 1814. And that momentous meeting might never taken place, for Lawrence had made the potentially fatal mistake of becoming friendly with the Prince’s estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick. In 1806 he was even suspected (though cleared) of being one of the Princess’s lovers in the “Delicate Investigation” into her morals. Had any whiff of scandal clung to Lawrence, it is certain that George IV would have had nothing to do with him. For both as prince and king, George had a profound hatred for his discarded wife. The story has it that when his advisers informed him of Bonaparte’s death with the words “Sire, your greatest enemy is dead,” he is said to have replied, “Is she, by God!”8
But by 1814 Lawrence was the leading portrait painter of his generation, and the Prince bowed to the inevitable, commissioning first his own portrait and then, over the next sixteen years, works of art that would become a pictorial chronicle of his regency and reign. We see the age through Lawrence’s bedazzled eyes. Take for example the portrait of Lady Peel in the Frick Collection (see illustration on page 11). Wearing no fewer than three massive jeweled bracelets, as many rings, and an oversized hat with scarlet feathers that cascade down her back, this beautiful young woman has always struck me as something of a fashion victim. And yet the picture’s surface brilliance—the Rubensian joy Lawrence takes in describing her accessories in bright, glossy colors—holds the viewer transfixed. According to Levey, as Lawrence matured he
refined his capacity to invest a portrait with crackling, electric vitality, communicated through that personal combination of visual acuteness and brilliant application of paint. About his work there would always be something of the firework. Plenty of routine commissions and unfinished pictures fizzled out, but at his best he demonstrated that fireworks in paint can burn slowly, be glowing no less than glittering—and can be astonishing for far longer than a moment.
As we have seen, the culmination of the Prince’s patronage was the commission for the portraits that now hang in the Waterloo Chamber. Here we see Lawrence as a virtuoso performer, paying homage to Rembrandt in his portrait of Count Capo d’Istria, but then emulating the color and movement of Rubens in those of Metternich and Earl Bathurst. The finest portrait of all is that of Pius VII, the aristocratic Benedictine monk who was elected pope in 1800, and whom Lawrence, in his role as both diplomat and painter, met in the spring of 1819.
The commission represented an extraordinary diplomatic conundrum, for no member of the British royal family had ever commissioned a papal portrait before, especially not one destined to hang in a royal residence. His Holiness, for his part, was acutely aware that in Britain Catholics were still subject to penal laws that would not be lifted until the act of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Lawrence solves the problem by presenting the Pope not as a temporal ruler but as a scholar and patron of the arts. Behind him, we catch a distant view of the new wing of the Vatican galleries, the Braccio Nuovo, where Antonio Canova would soon install the Laocoön. Lawrence thus deftly signals the Pope’s cultivated mind and custodianship of classical antiquity but omits a more usual attribute in papal portraits, the triple tiara, a symbol of papal supremacy sure to enflame Protestant feelings back in England. Levey’s description of the picture gives a flavor of the quality of his descriptive writing:
The vitality with which the sitter—and indeed the whole canvas—is invested springs from the sheer handling of paint…. He was able to move from careful detailing of the narrow, bony face down across the crimson velvet of the cape and the shimmering expanse of watered-silk white cassock, to linger with luscious paintwork over the soft-looking, ribboned pontifical slippers, permitting a brief, unusual glimpse too of white hose….
Whereas the secular monarchs and generals portrayed in the Waterloo Chamber bring a strong whiff of battles fought and won, Pius VII’s portrait speaks of the aftermath, of peace, with the restoration of civilised values, symbolised by statues that the world unites to admire. So in this, the most completely realised and the most intensely felt portrait of the whole series, and despite the absence of his tiara, the pope aesthetically assumes the role of a power unifying and universal.
On January 29, 1820, the Prince Regent became George IV and two months later Lawrence was elected president of the Royal Academy. “Thenceforward,” writes Levey, “the king and the president were linked in a way that had little or no precedent in England, certainly for any English artist. Never before—and never later—would so much reality attach to the title of being ‘His Majesty’s Principal Painter.'” Over the next decade the King was to spend more than £25,000 on Lawrence’s work, much of it undelivered owing to Lawrence’s inability to declare his paintings finished and allow them to leave his studio.
When he had time for other commissions, Lawrence’s late portraits are among his best. To describe them Levey rises to new heights of eloquence. Of Lawrence’s portrait of the elderly Lady Robert Manners he writes:
Yet what matters finally is not the portrait as a likeness but the painting qua painting. Lawrence finds fresh delight in making pigment positively rustle as it weaves in and out through all the elaborate ruching of the white satin bonnet and then descends to meet the layers of ruff around the neck, framing the sitter’s severely unanimated features with a lively display of bravura brushwork.
Of course, a face as full of character as Lady Robert’s would be a gift to any portrait painter. When Lawrence fails, it is often with children. A bachelor, he tends to make little boys like Charles Lambton impossibly sweet and his little girls too coy, too flirtatious, too grown up for modern tastes.
Charles Greville in his memoirs described Lawrence as “remarkably gentleman-like, with very mild manners…agreeable in society, unassuming, and not a great talker; his mind was highly cultivated, he had a taste for every kind of literature, and was enthusiastically devoted to his art….”9 By the time Lawrence died in January 1830 (the same year as his royal patron), he had painted over eight hundred works in oil.10 Since he was a slow worker, this is testament to the degree to which he lived for his art. The most beautiful expression of grief for his death came from J.M.W. Turner, whose watercolor showing the funeral cortege outside St. Paul’s uses repeated strokes of black like a threnody to convey his devastation at the loss of his friend. For Lawrence was clearly a congenial and generous man, whose only serious vice makes him all the more attractive. He was an obsessive collector of old master drawings, eventually amassing one of the finest private collections ever assembled by a single person. Greville tells us that although Lawrence was supposed to have earned immense sums from his pictures, “he has always been a distressed man, without any visible means of expense [i.e., expenses], except a magnificent collection of drawings…said to be the finest in the world, and procured at great cost.”11 The collecting habit finally ruined him financially.
Michael Levey, former director of the National Gallery in London, has been writing about Lawrence since 1979. In that year his magnificent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery did much to rehabilitate the reputation of an artist who in my youth used to be dismissed as overpolished and insincere. His monograph is a bravura performance by an aesthete whose love of painting and ability to convey that love in words matches both his subject’s dedication to his art and his virtuoso technique. The book, together with Kenneth Garlick’s 1989 catalogue raisonée, is one of the best things written so far about an artist who still needs the kind of scholarly attention Reynolds and Gainsborough have received in recent years, beginning with a full-scale Royal Academy or Tate retrospective.
March 1, 2007
Originally the series was to hang in the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House. ↩
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. ↩
Quoted in Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954), p. 14. ↩
Frances Burney (Madame d’Arblay), Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, edited by her niece (London: Henry Colburn, 1854), Vol. 1, p. 263. ↩
Only two years later, in February 1794, Lawrence was elected a full academician. ↩
Allan Cunningham, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, revised, edited, and annotated by Mrs. Charles Heaton (London: George Bell, 1880), Vol. 3, p. 31. ↩
To understand why, we must look at the tangled family politics that lay behind royal appointments in the later eighteenth century. Each member of the royal family seems to have required his own official portrait painter. George III, a Tory, detested his eldest son the Prince of Wales, who was a Whig, and the political differences between father and son were carried over into the field of patronage. It may have been because the Prince chose another Whig, John Hoppner, as his principal painter in 1789 that the King felt compelled to promote an artist of his own choosing to carry the Tory banner for the court at Windsor. And so ironically, the Prince of Wales and his Carlton House set, the most dashing and loose-living court in Europe, were saddled with the heavy-handed productions of Hoppner, while (officially, at least) the intensely moral, stultifying court at Windsor employed the painter most appreciative of royal glamour. ↩
Possibly apocryphal. ↩
Charles Greville, The Greville Memoirs, 1814–1860, edited by Lytton Strachey and Roger Fulford (London: Macmillan, 1938), Vol. 1, p. 353. ↩
Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings (Phaidon, 1989). ↩
The Greville Memoirs, 1814–1860, p. 353. ↩