Thomas Lawrence’s father came from a relatively well-to-do family and had various professions. He worked as a lawyer, an employee of the Customs and finally as an innkeeper, in Bristol, Devizes, Oxford and Bath. The young Thomas demonstrated his early artistic ability with portraits of the customers frequenting these diverse establishments. In Bath, a popular haunt of cultivated society and artists, he received some advice from William Hoare on the strength of which he executed some portraits in red chalk for which he charged a guinea and a guinea and a half. His customers multiplied. Lawrence also drew some historical compositions, but with less success. In 1787 he and his family moved to London where he became a pupil at the Royal Academy. At the time, although he was barely eighteen years old and had basically worked in isolation, his works were nonetheless admitted that same year to the Royal Academy Exhibition where he showed four portraits. Sir Joshua Reynolds gave some useful advice to the young artist, who soon attracted attention and was commissioned to paint portraits of the Duke of York, the Queen of England, and Princess Amelia. This royal patronage paved the way for election, before the requisite age, as an associate of the Royal Academy in 1791. When Sir Joshua Reynolds died the following year, Lawrence replaced him as painter to the king. He was elected an academician in 1794. This marked the start of a career of uninterrupted success for this brilliant portraitist. In 1814 Lawrence travelled to the continent for the first time, but was summoned back to London from Paris by the Prince Regent, who had been instrumental in the restoration of the Bourbons in France and commissioned Lawrence to paint prominent personalities, statesmen and service personnel for a new gallery for Windsor Castle. In 1815 the Prince Regent commissioned a portrait of himself by Lawrence and knighted him. In 1818 Sir Thomas Lawrence went to Aachen, Vienna and finally Rome to paint portraits for the Royal Collection. He returned to London in 1820, having made the most of his travels by visiting Italy’s main cities. Upon his return he was elected president of the Royal Academy, and in 1825 he went to Paris where he painted portraits of Charles X, the Dauphin, the Duke of Richelieu and received the cross of the Légion d’Honneur. He died from a cardiac complaint after several days’ illness.
Despite the considerable sums that his works commanded, Lawrence did not make a large fortune, due in part to the fact that he provided for his brothers and sisters, but also to his passion for collecting and his inability to resist the attraction of a work of art, regardless of price. He amassed a marvellous collection of drawings; however, when they were subsequently sold – perhaps too hastily – they only fetched about a third of their estimated value.
Lawrence was an extremely talented portrait painter, the leading portraitist of his era, and one of the few English painters to have achieved such fame whilst alive. He tried several historical and literary compositions – Satan, in 1797, Coriolanus, Cato, Hamlet- but was not as skilled in this field. He presented his models primarily in theatrical poses, but portrayed them as more important than their background. He showed a sensibility approaching romanticism, which made him admired by Delacroix, who met him in 1825, at the time of his stay in London, and who admired his Portrait of the Duke of Richelieu which had been exhibited in Paris in 1824. This relationship between his art and that of Delacroix might have become more pronounced had Lawrence not been first and foremost a society artist.
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