Saturday, December 11, 2010

Beaus in tight breeches

A few days ago I went to the Thomas Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I was especially interested in Lawrence, many of whose paintings I had seen in books on the eighteenth century. It was Lawrence who captured a moment of radical history in his chalk sketch of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft at their friend John Thelwall’s trial for treason in 1794. I had also read about the artist in his friend Joseph Farington’s diary, where (as I mentioned previously) he is described as “a male coquet”.

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769. The family moved to Devizes in 1773 and he was brought up in the coaching inn The Black Bear. Lacking formal education and training, he was something of a child prodigy who sketched and charmed many of the inn’s visitors, Frances Burney amongst them. When his father was declared bankrupt the family settled in Bath, where young Lawrence began his career as a portraitist. In 1787 he went to London and joined the Royal Academy schools, but did not stay there long. He went on to be an enormous success, the portrait painter of his age whose subjects included royalty, actors, bankers, soldiers, and even the Pope.

Despite his professional achievements, like many artists Lawrence suffered from the frustration of achieving success in one area while longing to shine in another. He wanted to be a painter of classical or historical subjects but attempts in the genre, such as Satan Summoning his Legions, were not well received. He was, he felt, “shackled” to the business of portrait painting.

Yet the paintings are marvellous. Standing in one of the exhibition rooms looking from paintings of wriggling children on one wall to stiff-fronted generals on the other I was filled with a sense of the painter’s tremendous empathy for his sitters. Every individual is vivid with his or her own life. The presence of Lawrence’s sitters is so intense I could imagine myself in the middle of an eighteenth-century crowd. I have always found paintings and photographs to be fantastic sources for characters in my stories. It’s not, usually, that I look at a painting and think “he will do as so-and-so” but more often that I see a painting and think “that is so-and-so” as I had already imagined them.

Perhaps I’d seen Lawrence’s painting somewhere and stored it up in my subconscious. I don’t know, but the thrill of recognition was intense. There was Charles Richmond, the London radical who is the main male character in the novel I am currently working on. To Lawrence he manifested himself as the Earl of Aberdeen. If anyone ever reads the novel who has also seen this painting, they will know exactly what Charles looks like.

I have not, however, found anyone I recognise in the quite startling painting of John, Lord Mountstuart, wearing some very tight trousers.

The National Portrait Gallery, Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance

Information on Thomas Lawrence from the National Gallery website -

The sketch of Godwin and Holcroft

National Portrait Gallery shines light on forgotten artist Thomas Lawrence, The Guardian 4 August 2010

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, National Portrait Gallery, The Daily Telegraph 18 October 2010

Gainsborough's forgotten rival Thomas Lawrence is recognised at last, The Independent 5 August 2010

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