Regency Portraiture:   Painting the Parts

Or, more specifically, who painted which parts? And when did they paint them?

Portraits were very popular during the Regency, just as they had been in previous centuries. Today, when nearly every cell phone has a camera and we can snap photos in an instant, we take pictures of our loved ones for granted. But two hundred years ago, a portrait was very often the only image one might have of a friend or family member. Each of those portraits required the specialized skills of a portrait painter (or painters), and took many, many hours to complete. But contrary to what most people believe, one did not simply pose for the artist while their portrait was painted. Nor were all the components of a painting present during any given sitting. The production of a portrait was often a complex process, which frequently required the efforts of more than one artist, sometimes in multiple locations.

And now, some "secrets" regarding the painting of Regency portraits …

First, of course, we must clarify exactly what a painted portrait is. In fact, it is easier to define what a portrait is not, than what it is. Not every painted, or even photographed, image of a person, or even creature, is a portrait. For example, there are dozens of paintings of the Battle of Waterloo which include images of the Duke of Wellington mounted on Copenhagen or Napoleon Bonaparte mounted on Marengo within them. But these are not portraits of either commander or their war horses. Such works would be classed as history paintings, because their primary intent is to portray an historical event, regardless of how accurate the depiction of the various participants. Nor would the caricatures which lampooned the rich and famous of London during the Regency be considered portraits, even though the images they contained were surprisingly accurate and the target of the jest easily identified. Perhaps the best definition of a portrait painting is that its principal subject is an individual, or a group of individuals, in which the primary focus of the work is the reasonably accurate depiction of the appearance of that person or group of people.

During the Regency, as had been the case since the Renaissance, most artists considered history painting a higher art form than portrait painting. But portrait painting usually brought in a significantly higher income, so many swallowed their pride and applied themselves to portraits. A few of the more talented artists, most often members of the Royal Academy, did not wholly abandon history painting. In between portraits, they plied their brush on grand history paintings, which they might submit for the Academy’s annual exhibition. Having a portrait painted by an artist who was a member of the Royal Academy was quite expensive, which meant that only the wealthy could afford such portraits. Those of the lesser gentry or the merchant classes might have their portraits painted by professional portrait painters who worked exclusively in that genre. Such artists were skilled enough to capture an adequate likeness of their subject, at a much lower cost than an Academy painter might charge. In most cases, these portraits would not be considered great art, but in the absence of photography, they were often cherished as the only image of a loved one. There were also itinerant artists in both England and America who made their living travelling the country, stopping here and there to paint a portrait wherever they could get a commission. Many of these travelling artists also sold artist’s supplies and/or other items to supplement their incomes.

When a wealthy patron decided to commission a portrait of themselves or a family member, the first decisions to be made, after the choice of artist, were the size of the painting, the pose the sitter would assume and the price to be paid. Typically, the size of the portrait was determined by the pose which was chosen. The least expensive pose was just the head, slightly more was paid for a bust, that is, head and shoulders. The price increased with the portion of the person to be depicted, thus a kit-kat, a half-height (to the waist), a three-quarter (to the knees) and a full length portrait were each incrementally more expensive. The choice of pose would affect the price of the portrait. Stock poses, like sitting or standing, facing to the front, turned three-quarters, or to the side, were subject to standard rates. However, if the sitter preferred a unique or new pose with which the artist was not familiar, they could expect to pay a higher rate. Most sitters would select the clothing they would wear in their portrait, as well as the settings which would serve as the backdrop. However, if they chose particularly elaborate clothing, or an extremely complex background, they could expect to incur additional costs.

Once the various decisions were made, all that remained was to set the appointment times for the sittings. Extremely successful artists might have a separate studio, but most Regency portrait painters tended to have their studios in their homes. In either case, the artist would have selected a large room with good light, preferably a northern exposure. Most sitters would be unable to maintain a pose for more than an hour and would begin to fidget, so sittings tended to be no more than an hour in length. Artists who needed longer sittings found ways to amuse their sitters to keep them in the pose for a longer period. They might engage their sitters in conversation or have someone read aloud to them, some even had a musician or two in to play while they painted. The sittings would have to be at the same time every day to ensure similar lighting conditions. In addition, since portraits were most often painted in oils, time was needed between each sitting to allow the paint to dry, so sittings would typically be scheduled two or three days apart. In the natural order of things, the painting of a portrait could take a very long time. But experienced artists knew how to speed the process.

The most common method of speeding portrait production was for the artist to concentrate on the head, especially the face, of the subject during the sittings. The subject would send the clothes in which they wished to be portrayed to the studio. The artist’s assistants would put the clothes on a mannequin, or in some cases, a living model, placed in the pose the sitter wanted. In the studios of the more successful artists, one of the more talented assistants would paint in the sitter’s clothing once the master had finished the head. If an artist had fewer assistants or none with the necessary talent, he would paint in the subject’s garments in between sittings with other customers. A simple background was often created in a corner of the studio, also to be painted by an assistant, or the master, again, between sittings. A more complex background might require the master, or a senior assistant, to go to the location to make studies which would be used back in the studio to complete the painting. Some of the larger studios also had both male and female hand models on call, as well as painters who specialized in hands, which are actually quite difficult to paint. These hand-painters would add in the hands, either the sitter’s (if they preferred) or a model’s, if a portrait required them, as one of the finishing touches, before it was ready to be delivered to the patron. Some portrait painters actually kept a supply of canvases on hand with figures painted in various poses. Once the customer made their selection, it was only necessary to paint in the head and add a few costume details to complete the portrait. Such portraits were significantly less expensive, and could be completed in less time than having a portrait painted by a master. This practice was especially common among the itinerant portrait painters, allowing them to produce a portrait quickly, at a more affordable price.

Public figures, such as royalty or heads of state, had even less time available to spend sitting for an artist, yet they had frequent demands for portraits as diplomatic gifts or presentations to important dignitaries or favored courtiers. During the Regency, Sir Thomas Lawrence painted several portraits of the Prince Regent, and more after he became king. Though Lawrence was one of the few artists who actually enjoyed painting the varied colors and textures of the royal costumes, he did employ a number of the techniques commonly used to speed the production of multiple portraits. In particular, Lawrence did head-only "portraits" of the prince, both full face and in profile. Images of one of these studies can be found on various web sites, typically labeled an "unfinished portrait." In actual fact, it is not unfinished, it is merely a profile study of the prince, done "from life," that means he was actually present when Lawrence painted the study. To accommodate the prince’s schedule, artists who painted his portraits often came to him to paint their "life studies," since he might not have the time or the inclination to come to their studios, as was the case with most heads of state.

These "studies from life" then stood in for the prince at the studio when a portrait was needed. His head would be copied from the study, sometimes by the master, sometimes by a senior assistant. The rest of the portrait would be completed by painting the desired costume, which had been sent to the studio, where it would have been arranged on a mannequin or model. The background which the prince wished would also be painted in, again, usually by an assistant who specialized in backgrounds. Thus, a portrait was painted as a gift without any demand on the prince’s time. This practice was commonly followed by portrait artists across Europe when producing portraits of public figures. However, for many people, particularly historians, these portraits are less important than a study from life, since they are merely a copy of a copy. A life study will always be more valuable because the artist’s eyes were actually on the subject as his hand guided the brush on the canvas. It is the closest image we have to a photograph from an age before photography was invented.

Not only heads of state had multiple portraits produced in this manner. Many wealthy, landed families commissioned multiple copies of portraits of the current head of the family or a beloved family member. A copy of such portraits might be hung in the country house, another in the London townhouse, and still more might be made for presentation to relatives and friends of the sitter. The "original" portrait, painted "from life," would be the most expensive, while subsequent copies would typically be cheaper, particularly if they were executed by studio assistants. Very often, when a new peer succeeded to their title, one of the first orders of business was to have their portrait painted. In most cases, this portrait would be full-length and would depict them in their full regalia. This "original" was usually hung at their main country house, while copies would be made for other estate or town houses. Oftentimes, these copies might show them in regular clothes, though usually they would still be full-length portraits. Additional copies, intended for family and friends, might not be full-length, but instead be half-length, or even just a bust, depending on the standing of the recipient. Portrait copying was a significant source of revenue for the studios of many Regency portrait painters.

Another life event for the aristocracy which was often captured in a portrait was the birth of the heir. Sometimes the portrait would be of both parents and the child, in some cases, only the mother and babe. Typically, such portraits required great speed on the part of the artist, as babies were seldom patient subjects. These portraits were usually executed in the same way, the master would paint the faces, while his assistants would complete the garments and background. But we know of at least one case, in which Thomas Lawrence received a commission from the Earl of Mexborough to paint his wife and newly-born son, which took rather longer because Lawrence did most of it himself. Mexborough eventually lost patience and when he encountered Lawrence one day, he took him to task over the delay. "Well," said Sir Thomas, "I’ve been a long time, I’ll allow, but I’ve got well forward with Lady Mexborough, it’s the baby wants finishing. Now if Lady Mexborough would kindly bring the baby and give me another sitting, I really will finish." Lord Mexborough gave a bark of laughter as he replied, "Well, Sir Thomas, my wife will be happy to give you another sitting whenever you like, but the baby’s in the Guards!" Mexborough was having Lawrence on, but only by a little. The Earl’s son and heir had been born in June of 1810, and the portrait was begun soon thereafter. It was finally completed, shortly before it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1821, when the "baby" was eleven, very nearly old enough to be eligible for a commission in the Guards.

The Prince Regent initially mistrusted Lawrence, because he believed him to be a friend of his hated wife, Caroline. However, in 1814, his close friend, Sir Charles Stewart, commissioned Lawrence to paint a portrait of the Regent. The Prince did agree to sit to Lawrence because of his friendship with Sir Charles. Once he saw the portrait, in which he was portrayed as both regal and handsome, Prinny changed his mind and Lawrence went on to paint several major portraits of him. In 1815, the Prince Regent knighted Thomas Lawrence, as a preliminary to a major royal commission. Sir Thomas Lawrence was to travel to all the European capitals, where he was to paint the portrait of every Allied leader who participated in the great victory over Napoleon. There were several delays before he could even begin, so Sir Thomas could not afford to dawdle over these portraits as he had over that of Lady Mexborough and her child. Therefore, he concentrated on the heads of the various monarchs, and sketched in their poses, while he had a coterie of assistants and pupils to paint in most of the garments and the backgrounds. This series of portraits was completed in 1825. They were hung together in the Waterloo Chamber, which the then King George IV had built specifically for the series in Windsor Castle. They all still hang together there to this day.

There were also rare occasions when an artist would re-use a portrait to create a new portrait of a completely different subject. One well-known example is Goya‘s large equestrian portrait of the Duke of Wellington. This portrait was first exhibited on 2 September 1812, at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in the heart of Madrid, barely three weeks after Wellington and his army had liberated the city. Even if he had worked around the clock for the full three weeks, it was considered highly unlikely that Goya could have completed this enormous portrait within that time. That was not even long enough for the paint to dry. There were many who suspected that Goya had re-used another portrait, though that was not known for certain until the mid-1960s. It was only then that the portrait was X-rayed and the image of another rider was revealed beneath that of Wellington. Most scholars believe that the original subject of the portrait was Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, whom he had made the King of Spain. And so, it would appear that the image of the victor was painted over that of the vanquished. This portrait was later presented to the Duke and is still in the collection at Apsley House.

I have read a number of Regency novels in which either the hero or the heroine is painting the other’s portrait. They spend hours together, often at odd hours of the day and night, in different places, while this so-called portrait is in progress. Even if the portrait were to be executed in watercolor, which could be done fairly quickly, it would still be necessary to have all the sittings at the same approximate time of day, in the same location, to ensure consistent lighting. Which is not to say that a single person could not paint a portrait in the manner we assume is done today, with multiple sittings to the same artist until the portrait was complete. That was frequently done, by talented amateurs or by a professional artist who did not have the benefit of assistants or students. But for the portrait to be properly executed, each sitting would have to take place in the same place, at roughly the same time of day until it was completed. And there would have to be breaks of two or three days between sittings to allow the paint to properly dry before the next sitting.

The business of portraiture during the Regency was typically rather an assembly-line process, even if one artist did all the work. The subject would present themselves at the studio, unless they were royalty or highly-placed members of the aristocracy, in which case the artist might go to them. Sittings would all be at the same time of day, in the same place, usually lasting about an hour. Very successful artists might have a musician or two playing in the background to entertain their most illustrious patrons. In most cases, the head and face could be completed with three to four sittings. The remainder of the painting did not require the presence of the subject, as it would all be done in the studio, often by assistants or the artist’s senior students. Portrait painters patronized by those of less affluence or social prominence would work in much the same way, although they would have to do all the studio work themselves, in between customer sittings. Such portraits would be less expensive, but would take longer to complete. For patrons of lesser means the artist might offer the option of adding the face and some costume details to a pre-painted canvas depicting the pose of the sitter’s choice.

The Regency portrait "industry" does offer a number of options to authors of novels set at that time. There were a few female portrait painters and some male portrait painters had female assistants, although they were often family members, such as wives, daughters or sisters. Many of the more successful artists took paying students, who then did much of the work of painting clothing and backgrounds. These students were mostly male, but there were a few female painting students. There were also those few female hand models, whose hands were painted when a sitter did not wish their own to be depicted in their portrait. None of these ladies would be considered of the best ton, but these positions would provide more alternatives for heroines who come to London to escape some unpleasantness and must support themselves until they meet and/or work things out with the hero. Or the hero, a talented amateur painter, might masquerade as an itinerant portraitist as he trails a spy through England, naturally encountering the heroine in the process. Perhaps the villain, hoping to usurp the missing hero’s title, surreptitiously has his father’s face painted over that of the hero’s father in the portrait at the family home to increase the evidence in favor of his claim. What events might be set in train if a portrait is suddenly delivered, a decade after it was begun, like Lawrence’s portrait of Lord Mexborough’s family? Or, how might a crabby old Dowager carp when she is presented a head-and-shoulders portrait of the new head of the family when she was expecting a full-length, or a half-length at the very least? And who would she make suffer because of that perceived slight? There are any number of features of the making of portraits during the Regency which an author might employ to paint their story.

Next week, the basics of the iconography of portraiture, in which will be explained the secrets of how to de-code a Regency portrait.

Author’s Note:  Next Thursday, 24 February 2011, is the opening day for a major exhibition of the work of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Entitled Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, the exhibition, at the Yale Center for British Art, in New Haven, will run through 5 June 2011. It is the only place in North America where this rich collection of Lawrence’s paintings can be seen. Lawrence was the foremost portrait painter of the English Regency, and this exhibition will include portraits of many famous and infamous Regency personalities. If you can make it to New Haven between now and the first week of June, consider treating yourself to this gala fete of Regency celebrities captured on canvas.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Regency Portraiture:   Painting the Parts

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I learned a lot about portrait painting. One question I do have, is how much did the artists charge for the different levels of paintings? Do you have any information about this? I’m very interested to know.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you found the information useful.

      There was no real set price, even for the particular poses or the size of the painting. All of that was negotiated by the artist and the patron. The cost factors included the pose, the size of the painting, the number of sitters, the complexity of the clothing and background to be portrayed, not to mention the prominence of the artist and the size of the patron’s pocketbook. For example, a simple head and shoulders portrait, with very few details of clothing or background by a well-known London painter might be anywhere from a hundred to two hundred pounds, while a full-length portrait with more than one sitter, very detailed garments and background, could run anywhere from five hundred to fifteen hundred pounds. But an itinerant portrait painter, traveling the countryside, might be happy to do a head and shoulders portrait of an individual for two or three pounds, while he might charge five to ten pounds for a family group, depending on how many people were included. And there were many artists whose prices fell somewhere in between the two extremes.

      Also keep in mind, that as an artist’s fame rose or fell, so did his prices. Younger artists who were not yet well established could not afford to charge the same prices as the most prominent artists, as they needed every commission. And those of high society would tend to patronize the more prominent, fashionable artists, thus allowing them to significantly raise their costs as demand increased. Country folk, who cared little for fashion and simply wanted a good likeness of themselves, or someone in their family, saw the painter’s work less as art, and more as simple job of recording an image. They would tend to drive a much harder bargain than might a socially prominent, wealthy aristocrat who wanted a portrait by the most fashionable London artist, as much to make a statement about their own wealth and taste as to have a good likeness.

      I hope that gives you some idea of how portrait pricing worked in the Regency.



  2. Pingback: Regency Colormen | The Regency Redingote

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