Face to face with greatness: Thomas Lawrence

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A new exhibition confirms that the Regency artist Thomas Lawrence was a formidable talent, says Adrian Hamilton

It has taken a good many decades for the Regency artist Thomas Lawrence to climb back into critical approval, for all that he was once considered the pre-eminent British portraitist of his day and one of the giants of the European scene.

The Victorians found him too glossy, feminine even, in his bravura displays of flesh and fabric, while for 20th-century tastes his pictures lacked the grit and psychological intrusion that modernism demanded.

And yet gradually over the past decade he has emerged through the renewed interest in portraiture as a formidable figure in his own right, appearing in a succession of general exhibitions alongside his contemporaries Reynolds, Goya, David and Ingres.

Does he deserve the ranking? On the evidence of the exhibition which has just opened at the National Portrait Galley, the answer must be a definite "yes." As a painter he is quite extraordinarily brilliant in his use of colour and portrayal of surface. As a portraitist he was in many ways a radical in the sheer élan with which he presented his subjects and the directness of the gaze he imbued them with.

Full face is how his works strike you, as they struck his contemporaries when he first showed at the Royal Academy in 1788 and 1789, a pastellist from the provinces just up from Bath. Two early full-length works are being shown at the NPG and you can see why contemporary society hailed him as the new wonderboy of the art, the true successor to the still very-much-alive, kicking and slightly jealous Joshua Reynolds.

The portrait of Queen Charlotte of 1789-90, painted after a difficult sitting and never paid for by the sick George III, is a study of white and anguish. Her hair is greying, her face mournful. The accoutrements are grand in the Reynolds style, but the feel is personal as she plucks her lace scarf and looks uncomfortably to the middle distance.

Quite the opposite in feel is the much-reproduced figure of the actress and friend of the artist Elizabeth Farren, of the same period. She strolls in the countryside as the recently deceased Gainsborough would have had her. But the fur that she clutches around her neck gives her a liveliness that Gainsborough would never have ventured, and her direct look breathes of fun and invitation.

The direct gaze, and the brightness of costume, are indeed hallmarks of Lawrence. That and rosy lips, almost indecently wet and red even in the male portraits. Other painters have used the direct look, of course. But it is usually to convey authority in the commanding gaze or dreaminess in the empty eyes. With Lawrence the sitters challenge you, sometimes questioningly, sometimes doubtfully and occasionally brutally.

One of Britain's longest-serving prime ministers, Lord Liverpool, is positively threatening as he glowers at the viewer, ready to dominate in debate. The 20-year-old, and all-too-pretty, Arthur Atherley stares from beneath a fulsome lock of flopping hair, hand on hip, asking you to admire him. The Duchess of Devonshire, in a fine drawing from 1819 (the exhibition contains a room of finely done pencil-and-chalk drawings) looks not so much at you as to the artist himself, with an imperious regard. One wouldn't like to be the maid who spilt the tea at her house.

Not all the sitters gaze directly at the viewer. Lawrence uses the look-into-space to imbue eagerness, as with the Barings; to suggest vision (rather less successfully) with the portrait of his patron Richard Payne Knight; and melancholy, as in the representation of Princess Sophia. In the military portrait of Charles William Stewart, Wellington's adjutant-general in the Peninsular war and ambassador at the post-war Congress of Vienna, the artist uses the sideways look both to express martial courage and a certain hesitancy of experience as he holds his scabbarded sword across his shoulder.

It was Stewart who persuaded the Prince Regent, suspicious of Lawrence for his association with his father, George III, to start to commission him and to give the still-young artist the full royal favour of promoting a series of grand pictures of the victors of the Napoleonic wars to hang in the Waterloo room of Windsor castle. The Queen has lent three of the full-length ones: Field Marshall von Blucher, Charles, Archduke of Austria and Pope Pius VII. It's difficult to like the first two, too full of bombast to be totally interesting. But the third, of Pope Pius VII, is a true masterpiece.

Lawrence certainly regarded it as an apogee of his work, and he was right. Here sits the Pope in all the finest trapping of his position, a stole of the firiest red, a silken gown of glimmering white, slippers so fine that even the present Pope, who notoriously loves these things, would drool over them. Behind the throne is revealed the famous classical statue of Laocoon, returned to Rome after being seized as war booty by Napoleon. On the throne, overwhelmed by its size, sits the Pope himself, also returned after imprisonment in Paris by the French emperor. And it is his face that holds the whole picture, looking diminished but not overwhelmed by such grandeur, staring to the side, eyes full of character and experience, with knowledge of the past and a belief in the future.

Not all Lawrence's works can quite match this, it should be said. The exhibition, although not huge, covers most aspects of his career and, in doing so, his limitations. Portraiture in those days took on certain set themes – the group portrait, the picture of children and the allegorical portrait. As a man on the make, from humble background (his father was an innkeeper who went bankrupt when his son was 11) and provincial training, Lawrence tried them all with mixed results.

His group portraits, such as that of the Barings, are forceful but unconvincing. His pictures of children, although vivacious and more real than many of the period, are sentimental and staged, too much so for the modern taste at least. His allegorical portraits in the manner of Reynolds don't work at all. His portrayal of the actor John Philip Kemble as Cato, for which the NPG recently paid £178,500, looks simply ridiculous, however good its painterly qualities.

The show starts off with a recently rediscovered self-portrait painted when he had just arrived in London at the age of 18. It's a picture of a nervous but intense young man, seated, his left hand at rest on the chair's arm, but his right hand pressed down against the seat, as if he wasn't quite sure of his position. Some 37 years later, the painter, now knighted with royal patronage and elected president of the Royal Academy, portrayed himself as a balding, middle-aged, middle-class man who could be banker or politician as much as artist, and without any of the symbols which might indicate that he was. The eyes this time give little away except a degree of defensiveness.

He loved enough, quite scandalously at times. He had good friends and loyal patrons among the good as well as the great. Although he is perhaps best known for his pictures of young beauties, he is best and most sympathetic with older women. His early pastel of Elizabeth Carter and late portrait of Mary Digges, Lady Manners, are among the most touching in the show, full of empathy as well as understanding. His portraits are full of affection for those, such as John Julius Angerstein and indeed, in his later portraits of the Duke of Wellington, who supported him. Yet there was something in him that made him hold back; ambition, perhaps, or his position in the establishment, and prevented him ever becoming the kind of subversive and individualistic artist that the art world still prefers.

This is an excellent exhibition, its relatively moderate size makes it approachable and easy to take at your own pace. That may limit a full exploration of his place in the history of portraiture and comparison with his contemporaries. There is a wonderful show still to be held just of his portraits of political power at the time – Grey, Peel and the rest. He painted them dressed in black, not the red and whites of soldiers, royals and cultural figures. Taken together they form a revealing picture of an era when Britain emerged from war, victorious but not triumphant, eager to build on success, but also to reform.

Lawrence was no Turner or Constable. But he was one of the supreme presenters of his times.

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (www.npg.org.uk) to 23 January 2011

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone