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…
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