[1] Self-portrait of Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA, oil on canvas, ca.1825
©Royal Academy of Arts, London

[2] A Gipsy Girl, oil on canvas, 1794
©Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] Satan summoning his Legions, oil on canvas, 1796-97
©Royal Academy of Arts, London

[4] Seated woman viewed from the back, pen & ink on paper, 1814 or after
©Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artist of the Month - October 2009


Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Thomas Lawrence was one of the finest and most successful portrait painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He painted with great fluency and this, combined with his inventiveness in composing his portraits, ensured that his influence on future generations of artists was evident well into the 20th century. He received official recognition in his lifetime when he was knighted in 1815 and five years later was elected as President of the Royal Academy of Arts, a post in which he remained until his death in 1830

Lawrence's standing in society and in Europe was consolidated by his close relationship with George IV. As well as painting official portraits of the monarch he was also commissioned by the regent to paint a series of notable figures involved in the defeat of Napoleon, including King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and the Duke of Wellington, which were all hung in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle

This unfinished self-portrait [1] was probably begun before Lawrence left for Paris in 1825, and it may be the one commanded by George IV, in which he is supposed to have suggested that the artist wear 'the costume of his Doctor-of-laws gown' but not the cap as 'we shall not recognise you without your bald head.' If so, Lawrence has rather pointedly decided to portray himself instead in everyday clothes and to employ no props to embellish or elevate his image. The greatest portrait painter of his generation, Lawrence was notoriously reluctant to paint himself - only one other self-portrait in oil is known (ca.1786; whereabouts unknown) - but here the figure of the artist shown dramatically emerging from a dark background is painted with all the technical virtuosity for which he was famed throughout Europe.

Although Thomas Lawrence worked pre-eminently as a portrait painter, his Diploma work [2] is a subject painting, possibly because of an unwritten rule that portraits could not be accepted as Diploma works at this time. In the 18th Century scenes like this, of everyday life, often including peasant or beggar children, were called 'fancy' pictures. Lawrence's Gipsy Girl is not as innocent as she sometimes appears in such works however, in that she is shown here carrying off a chicken, while in the distance an irate farmer gives chase.

It has been suggested that the model for the gipsy girl was Maria Siddons, the younger daughter of the tragic actress Sarah Siddons. During the 1790s Lawrence was supposedly engaged to Mrs. Siddons' eldest daughter Sally, but somehow contrived to fall in love with Maria as well.

Satan Summoning his Legions [3] is a work on a monumental scale and one of Lawrence's rare forays into history painting. It was exhibited in the Royal Academy Annual Exhibition of 1797, and later purchased in 1798 by the Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, It was returned to Lawrence after Duke of Norfolk's death in about 1815 and was still in his possession when the artist died in 1830. It was subsequently given to the Royal Academy by the dealer, Samuel Woodburn, in 1837

It is one of most astonishing and ambitious paintings of his career. The subject was taken from Milton's Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 330, 'Awake, arise, or be for ever fallen'. The composition is intensely dramatic, as Satan emerges from the darkness, with Beelzebub at his shoulder, lit only from below by the flames of hell. Although some contemporary critiques were unfavourable, Lawrence always considered this work, both at the time, and later in his career, as one of his most important paintings.

Looking back at the work in 1811 Lawrence was depressed, not because the painting had lessened in his eyes, but that his subsequent career had not lived up to this work. He wrote that he had 'the strong impression of the past dreadful waste of time and improvidence of my life and talent'.

Despite financial difficulties in his life, Lawrence built up an impressive collection of Old Master drawings and prints, including work by Michelangelo and Raphael, some of which are now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and the British Museum. Lawrence himself constantly drew portrait drawings in pen and ink chalk and pastel, many of which were just for his own satisfaction. This drawing of a woman viewed from the back [4] was made by Lawrence after a visit to the opera. The incident was related by his friend Elizabeth Croft: 'One night, at the opening of Covent Garden for the season, Sir Thos. excused himself after tea in Hart Street, in order to see the improvements which had been made by his friend Smirke. He returned in about an hour evidently in very ill-humour. I said, 'You have brought back the headache with you."! "No." He asked me for a pencil or pen and ink, and in a few minutes he produced a likeness of a lady's bare back and broad shoulders, which were exposed quite down to her girdle; and he said she was an Englishwoman, or he should not have been so incensed at her.' (G. S. Layard, Sir Thomas Lawrence's Letter-Bag, London 1906, p. 266).