Face to face with greatness: Thomas Lawrence

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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

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