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The Light in Their Eyes

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance

By A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, Lucy Pelz
Yale University Press, 2010

In September of 1789 a grand Regency matron sat to have her portrait painted, and in this we might find nothing remarkable. But every layer of detail adds more fascination to the scene. The matron in this case, for example, was Queen Charlotte, the wife of poor afflicted King George III, whose descent into raving illness in the previous year had brought about the Regency crisis in the first place (his loutish son fought for rule of the country while the King was incapacitated, a not entirely insensible course of action made monstrous by his attacks on his mother at the same time). She had been badgered into the idea of having her portrait painted, badgered chiefly by her friend and companion Philadelphia Hannah, the 1st Viscountess Cremorne, whose portrait this same artist had done earlier in the year. The American-born Viscountess convinced the Queen that a new portrait would be a sign that the King was well again, and that the Queen was ready to resume her role at his side. Stability was to be the message, all the more important in light of the revolution in France that July, and so a painter was summoned to Windsor that fall and installed in apartments with all his equipment.

Lawrence's Potrait of The Viscountess Cremorne. All images taken from the book under review.

The artist was if anything more fascinating than his sitter. He was Thomas Lawrence, “the prodigy of the day,” a 20-year-old Bristol provincial who was already viewed as the heir to the great Joshua Reynolds. Lawrence’s talent for portraiture had been obvious even when he was a small boy, doing quick sketches for money of the guests in his parents’ inn at Bath. It was there, when he was eleven, that the novelist Fanny Burney pronounced him “not merely the wonder of [his] family, but of the times,” and his portrait of Viscountess Cremorne had struck the art world like a thunderbolt when it had been exhibited earlier that year: it shows its subject draped in black, slightly crouched but almost regal in bearing, with a background of wild-clouded landscape as lush as the subject is severe. It was at once a typical court-portrait and something more emotional, more sensuous, and the Viscountess had recommended the experience to the Queen, who reluctantly agreed.

In Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance, a gorgeous, invigorating, and much-needed overview of Lawrence’s life and works (a companion volume to an exhibit of the same name at Yale’s Center for British Arts and the National Portrait Gallery of London), A. Cassandra Albinson’s standout essay “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women” has much to say on the dangers the young painter courted by generating this atmosphere – and its potential rewards:

Lawrence’s creation of a zone of intimacy between artist and sitter caused anxiety among critics and potential clients, and at times damaged his reputation. But it also piqued interest in his portraits of women and gave them a sense of spontaneity, liveliness, and sensuality that his competitors could not match.

Many of those competitors – William Beechey, John Hoppner, Henry Raeburn – took pains, Albinson points out, to construct “lives of studied domestic probity.” Whereas Lawrence himself never married and lavished his physical charms on each of his female sitters. He had been known as something of a “male coquet,” and Sarah Thackeray could later lament that time and age had dissipated his looks, but in 1789 those looks and that charm were in full force, and at Windsor he unthinkingly exercised them for his newborn professional career. The Queen was dour and unresponsive, and that would not do: he suggested that she converse with the young princesses instead of merely listening to them read, and his suggestion – coming from a youth and a commoner – was not appreciated. The Queen rose, and she didn’t come to him again even when he begged her. One of her attendants modeled her jewelry for a final sitting. The King and Queen weren’t pleased with the final product – Lawrence was never paid and was turned out of his Windsor apartments before Christmas. But the portrait must surely rank as one of the most immediate and unconventional royal paintings of the pre-modern era. The Queen is radiantly human, her face a quiet battleground of distractions at war with good grace (X-rays of the painting reveal that Lawrence struggled especially with the set of her mouth, and in the end it looks like he decided to leave that struggle visible). A heavy curtain casts a curving shadow on the wall, but the Queen sits a bit forward of it, and her cloud of silver hair stands out all the more against the background. The woman in the painting has gone through Hell in the last year, and Lawrence has the path-breaking temerity to show us that – but there’s still light shining on her, and he shows that too. Any monarch in the world should have been honored by the work, but the Queen had revolution and madness on her mind and no time for picture painters.

Fortunately, others had the time. Lawrence exhibited his painting of Queen Charlotte in 1790 along with several other pieces, and his fame, already meteoric, only gained momentum. He was named an associate of the Royal Academy at age 21, and when Joshua Reynolds died in 1792, Lawrence succeeded him as Painter-in-Ordinary to King George III, a remarkable preferment for one so young. Other preferments and patrons followed, and one of the pleasures of Regency Power & Brilliance is the viewing of Lawrence’s career refracted through the many different prisms of the book’s individual essays. This diffusion is always a risk run when reading books assembled in committee-fashion like this one, and usually that risk turns ugly: different essayists contradict each other’s assertions (or, more embarrassingly, each other’s facts), writers of drastically varying levels of talent are yoked together with little regard for the roller-coaster sensation this will produce in the reader, etc. That’s not the case in this book. Peter Funnell writes an engaging essay about Lawrence’s dealings with men – both his friends and his patrons (it’s oddly cheering to learn how often the two were the same, in his case; he comes off as extremely likable); Marcia Pointon gives us an in-depth and wry look at “Charming Little Brats,” Lawrence’s many paintings of little children, in which she makes digressions to include other semi-formed dumb brutes:

Lawrence seems to have had a soft spot for dogs: John Knowles recalled that the artist was very fond of Knowles’ Marlborough spaniel; he introduced it into his portrait of Miss Peel and insisted on placing the dog on a chair beside him when he dined at Knowles’ house.

Charming little eccentricities like this fill the interstices of this book in a way that’s often missing from collections of monographs, but the main draw here is and only ever could be the paintings themselves and their somewhat mysterious derivation. For a comparatively modern artist, we know amazingly little about the formal training and development of Lawrence’s technique – over and over in this book’s various essays, we’re told that some surmise on when Lawrence mastered watercolor or how he first learned oil painting is conjecture, opinion, guess. The child prodigy from Bath had enormous amounts of ambition and raw talent; how he channeled the former is obvious – he came to London and eventually set up shop in Russell Square – but how he channeled the latter is mostly unknown.

He never did entirely master the technicalities of his craft – like any autodidact, he had gaps in his learning. Even the untrained eye can see awkwardness in such paintings as that of Sarah Barrett Moulton done in 1794, where the subject’s right arm is supposed to be represented as being bent behind her back but instead looks like it was mangled in some kind of mechanical rice-picker, or the portrait of Frances Hawkins and her son, John James Hamilton Junior, in which the mother is shown in a happy pose with her son and their enormous dog, only both mother and dog appear to be lacking hindquarters. Lawrence always favors visual impression over such points of accuracy – it’s one of the main things that separates his work from that of his more classically trained contemporaries, and even in the most confusing cases, it imparts and undeniable charm (Albinson’s essay “Delineating a Life: Lawrence as Draughtsman” does some ingenious deconstructions of the artist’s actual nuts-and-bolts techniques).

And what Lawrence did well, he did better than anybody. Pointon refers to him casually but definitively as “the last great portraitist of the long eighteenth century,” and watching the incredible procession of such portraits as it passes through the pages of this book, the verdict is overwhelming. Here are dozens of querulous, mocking, happy, human faces, eyewitnesses to the birth of the modern world, and here is Lawrence the young genius, capturing each of them in a bright, cold evening light, dusting each of them with a brilliant highlight here, a liquid sheen of reflection there. No artist of his time had as perfect an understanding of impasto and the deployment of light – indeed, Lawrence strayed far enough from the conventional use of such things to provoke some objections, certain critics claiming that the ‘too many shining lights’ of Lawrence’s portraits hinted at some inner depravity, at the age’s triumph of glitter over gravitas.

Such was not the consensus during Lawrence’s lifetime. Despite a persistent poverty brought about more by his inability to manage money than by any lack of commissions, Lawrence moved from honor to honor. In 1818 the Prince Regent sent him to Vienna to paint official portraits of all the major figures at the peace negotiations held there in the wake of Bonaparte’s defeat, and Lawrence was eventually knighted and made President of the Royal Academy. He moved in exalted circles and counted among his sitters, friends, and patrons many of the most important and influential political figures of the day. He had a knack for capturing the “theater and rhetoric of politics” (as Lucy Peltz calls it, in her lively essay “Arrival on the Scene: The 1790s”) that was arrestingly sensual, as typified in his portrait of Robert Banks Jenkinson, a young firebrand politician as aggressively ambitious as Lawrence himself (they were the same age). Against a background of lush red curtain (with the glimpse of a window on one side and the base of a classic column on the other), the subject stands by a paper-strewn desk, right arm defiantly akimbo, left hand holding a slip of a paper, brightly illuminated face staring directly at the viewer with hawk-like eyes. The effect is one of almost imperious impatience, as though the painter interrupted the young man in the middle of a great deal of work (instead of the reality, where the young man went to the painter’s studio and stood around for a few hours each day over the course of a week). Jenkins would go on to become the 2nd Earl of Liverpool and Prime Minister from 1812 to 1827 – an unusually long time during which he achieved widespread notoriety for passing the infamous “gagging acts” that infringed on about eighteen different personal freedoms guaranteed by Magna Carta. The ruthlessness of the older man is conveyed perfectly in the portrait of the younger man.

Regency Power & Brilliance does a fine job of showing the range of Lawrence’s ability. Two pictures stand at opposite ends of that spectrum: his 1812 portrait of Wellington’s famous adjutant Charles William Vane-Stewart, the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, is grandiose, operatic, magnificently public, whereas the 1824 chalk sketch he did of his nephews Andrew Bloxam and Richard Rowland Bloxam is a much smaller work in every way, intimate and with a feeling of being unfinished. The Vane-Stewart piece is a rich, gaudy celebration of victory: thick battle-smoke obscures the background, but the handsome subject is festooned in bright sashes and medals and luxuriant fur, with a saber arrogantly draped over his right shoulder. The eyes are watchful, but there’s the hint of a smile about the lips (one indication of how charming Lawrence could be during his sittings – pace Queen Charlotte – is the frequency with which such half-smiles show up on the faces of his subjects, regardless of the solemnity of their settings). Lawrence’s nephews are likewise young and handsome, but they are worlds away from the pomp and pageantry of the battlefield. Richard Rowland Bloxam was chaplain on the frigate HMS Blonde at the same time that his younger brother Andrew was the vessel’s official naturalist, and both sailed to the South Pacific (under no less a captain than George Anson, the Lord Byron after Lord Byron) and encountered many wonders and adventures (Andrew kept a highly detailed journal that rests now in a display case in Honolulu and awaits the popular illustrated edition it deserves). In the charming charcoal sketch Lawrence did of them, the older brother is in the foreground, more reserved, gazing off into the distance, whereas the younger brother, an affectionate arm over his brother’s shoulder, is leaning forward and looking directly at the viewer – but both are caught in the clear freshness of their youth. The effect is as closely affectionate as the Vane-Stewart is admiringly distant.

But no subject brought out Lawrence’s full powers like the painting of beautiful women, and to my mind no picture better captures this than the 1819 portrait he did of Lady Selina Meade, the orphaned daughter of an impoverished Irish peer who was raised by her maternal aunt Princess Lichnowsky, who was at one point a patron of Beethoven. Lawrence met Lady Selina in Vienna, where she was one of the social ornaments of the city, accomplished, witty, intellectual, formidably cultured, but the viewer who knew none of that would know it all upon seeing the portrait Lawrence did. She glances sidelong at us, and her winsome half-smile and arched left eyebrow are as eloquent as a sonnet – or indeed a novel, since if there’s a better picture of Elizabeth Bennett in existence, I’ve never seen it. It was Lawrence’s custom to start a session by sitting quite close to the subject and doing highly detailed charcoal sketches of their face and neck, later working from these sketches when rendering the final product in oil. It was an effective method of transferring the intimacy of that initial hour to the immortality of the larger canvas, and in pictures like that of Lady Selina, we see its wisdom.

Lawrence died suddenly in his Russell Square home in 1830, his studio filled with finished and half-finished works. Many of these were claimed by their commissioners or subjects, and the rest were sold to cover the artist’s debts. Something in the neighborhood of 40,000 pounds was raised in a series of seven auctions, but even such an amount only barely covered what was owed. His reputation languished in the century after his death: his work tended to be viewed as highly polished mere pandering to the wealthy and powerful, too bound by convention to be of any artistic interest. The 20th century saw a rethinking of these simplifications, and a great deal of first-rate scholarship has been done on both the period and the man. This Yale volume is bedeviled by typographical errors, but on every higher level it shines a further glorious light on the greatest society painter of that era. Those who can’t get to the exhibits in New Haven or London can do the next best thing, gazing on all these bright-eyed fabulous creatures just as so many London crowds once did.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.