Sir Thomas Lawrence

views updated May 29 2018

Sir Thomas Lawrence

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was the leading English portrait painter of his day. His dashing, colorful style fixed the pattern of society portraiture to the present time.

Thomas Lawrence was born in Bristol on May 4, 1769. At Devizes, where his father was landlord of the Black Bear Inn, Thomas's talents first became known. Fanny Burney, a prodigy herself, reports that in 1780 Sir Joshua Reynolds had already pronounced Lawrence the most promising genius he had ever met. When Thomas was 10, his father moved the family to Oxford and then to Bath to take advantage of the portrait skill of his son.

At the age of 17 Lawrence began to paint in oil, all his previous work having been in pastel. In 1787 the family moved to London, and by 1789 he was challenging Reynolds. When Reynolds died in 1792, Lawrence was appointed to the lucrative post of painter in ordinary to the king. He soon became the foremost portrait painter in England, a position he maintained until his death. His portraits of women are models of beauty and elegance, whether the sitter be a tragic actress like Mrs. Siddons, a social figure like the Princess de Lieven, or a personal friend.

At the close of the Napoleonic Wars, Lawrence was knighted and commissioned to paint the leading sovereigns and statesmen of Europe. When he returned to England in 1820, he was elected president of the Royal Academy; he handled the affairs of his office with tact and urbanity. He died on Jan. 7, 1830.

Following the English masters of the 18th century, Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and George Romney, Lawrence carried on the great tradition of society portraiture and raised it to new heights of dash and elegance, though not of psychological penetration. He was by no means an artist of the astonishing insight of Gainsborough, and he did not have the occasionally disconcerting originality of Reynolds. Lawrence had their faults: all were affected by the distorting demands of their fashionable clientele, and all succumbed to them. He had the least to say, and he reflected his sitters' own best views of themselves, yet even they must sometimes have been surprised at their own magnificence. Handsome his portraits undoubtedly are; all the women are strikingly beautiful, the men brave and distinguished.

Lawrence enjoyed his great success. He lived for his work, never married, and was a prodigious worker. He was of an exceptionally generous nature, as an artist and as a man, with a rare talent for appreciating and encouraging the talents of others. He was an ardent collector of Old Master drawings; his collection, which was dispersed after his death, was the largest and best that has ever been formed in England.

Further Reading

The basic early biography of Lawrence is D. E. Williams, Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, KT (2 vols., 1831). The standard work for many years was Sir Walter Armstrong, Lawrence (1913). The best book on Lawrence is Kenneth John Garlicks Sir Thomas Lawrence (1955), whose short text contains all needed information on his life and an excellent catalog of his work, which is particularly useful for locating the pictures. Douglas Goldring, Regency Portrait Painter (1951), is a fuller account of Lawrence's life and times treated from a literary point of view. □

Lawrence, Sir Thomas

views updated May 23 2018

Lawrence, Sir Thomas (1769–1830). Painter. Lawrence was born in Bristol, the son of an innkeeper, and almost completely self-taught. In 1791 he was elected ARA, made a full academician three years later, and president in 1820. A portrait of Queen Charlotte, painted in 1790, led to enormous success and his appointment as painter to the king on the death of Reynolds in 1792. Knighted in 1815, three years later he was commissioned by the prince regent to paint the portraits of all the principals involved in the struggle against Napoleon. This group hangs in the Waterloo chamber in Windsor castle. Lawrence made probably the finest collection of old master drawings in England, which he offered to the nation in his will. This was refused and the collection dispersed on his death. Fellow-artist Benjamin Haydon, less successful, said of him, ‘Lawrence … was suited to the age, and the age to him. He flattered its vanities, pampered its weaknesses, and met its meretricious taste.’

June Cochrane

Lawrence, Sir Thomas

views updated May 11 2018

Lawrence, Sir Thomas (1769–1830) English painter. Considered one of the most brilliant British portrait painters of his age, Lawrence's portrait of Queen Charlotte (1789) won immediate acclaim. He became Painter in Ordinary to the King, and was sent to Europe to paint the allied leaders involved in the defeat of Napoleon.