The Lawrence Exhibition:   Powerfully Brilliant!

And, Gentleman Jackson, in the buff!  Really!   Mmmm!!!

This week, I finally got the chance to go down to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, to see the special exhibition of a number of portrait paintings by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The show, entitled Thomas Lawrence:   Regency Power and Brilliance, was both a huge treat, and a little disappointing for me.

What I liked and what I didn’t …

One of the things I liked the best was that the exhibition gallery was very large and open, giving each painting plenty of space. Unlike how those same paintings would have been hung during the Regency, all pushed up against one another, here most of these portrait paintings were hung separately. That way, each portrait could be appreciated without the distraction of other paintings nearby. And a number of these portraits are very large, some as much as ten to twelve feet high, and six to eight feet across. These over-life-size portraits are rather like encountering the people they depict in the flesh. It was nice to have a quiet moment to really study each of them without feeling as if one was in a crowd.

The show was organized to show the progression of Lawrence’s career, so it began with his early works, many of which were drawings. He had been a child prodigy, making drawings of those who visited his father’s inn and coaching house when he was only five years old, to earn a bit of extra money for the family. Sadly, none of those very early drawings are known, but he retained his skill at drawing throughout his life. He often did portraits of his host or hostess as a gift to them when invited to country house parties. He had the ability to capture the sitter much more spontaneously than would ever have been possible with the much more intense effort required of a portrait in oils. I think my favorite of the traditional drawings in the show was Elizabeth, Duchess of Devonshire. By the time he did the drawing, she had outlived both the previous duchess and the duke and was living in Rome. She was nearly sixty at the time, but Lawrence was always very kind and flattering to his sitters, especially the women, and in this drawing she is an ageless beauty with high cheekbones and bright, wise eyes.

One of the most surprising things I learned was that Lawrence often did drawings with black chalk on a canvas prepared with gesso in instances where a quick and spontaneous portrait was wanted. Apparently, he was the only artist known to have worked in this technique. One of the best in the show was a double portrait of two brothers, both soon to ship out to sea, having joined the Royal Navy together. There was no time to do a portrait of the brothers in paint before they set sail, so he did his drawing in black chalk on prepared canvas. It was an intimate portrait of two young men, showing their affection for one another and their eagerness to set out on their new adventure. Lawrence did a number of these quick, spontaneous chalk portraits as gifts for friends and family, and occassionally as gifts to his hosts at a country house party. In many cases, he used just a hint of pastel or colored chalk to add a blush to the cheeks, suggest a pair of rosy lips or blue or green eyes. I am certain that anyone who received such a portrait from Lawrence must have been well pleased with it. They are not as detailed as painted portrait, but after two centuries, they still retain a freshness and immediacy which can never be captured in oils.

Before Lawrence focused the bulk of his painting on portraits, which were more lucrative, he did attempt a few history paintings. History paintings, those which show scenes from antiquity, mythology or biblical times, were considered the pinnacle of the painter’s art. One of the first of Lawrence’s known history paintings was Homer Reciting his Poems, which was completed in 1790. Set in antiquity, this painting shows a group of classical scholars in an outdoor setting, listing to the great blind poet Homer recite one of his works, possibly the Iliad. In the foreground, a young man in the nude is reclining as he listens intently, his head turned toward Homer. Of course, the naughty bits are tastefully draped with a white cloth. The model for this nude young man was John Jackson, who at that time was in his prime, and one of the most famous pugilists in all of England. He would later retire from the ring and open his own boxing studio. By the Regency, he would be known as "Gentleman" Jackson, by which time he had put on a little weight and no longer fought professionally. But in the 1790s, when he sat for Lawrence, he had a physique many men today would envy, and many women would covet.

I was delighted to see again the portrait of Charles Stewart, which I had seen some years ago on a visit to London. But I was very disappointed not to see the portrait of his brother, Lord Castlereagh, which is one of my favorite Lawrence portraits. I was also disappointed not to see the portraits of either the Princess of Wales or the Princess Charlotte, though one supposes Prinny would be pleased to know they were not included. But the life study of Prinny which began his relationship with Lawrence was there, and regardless of how he might have appeared in real life, Lawrence certainly gave him a regal air, with fewer chins and more hair than he possessed at the time the portrait was painted.

The most disconcerting part of the exhibition for me was the juxtaposition of a portrait of the Duke of Wellington, c. 1830, with that of the Persian Ambassador painted at least twenty years previously. Beside the fact that both portraits were of about the same size and both were half-lengths, there was absolutely nothing to relate them. To the best of my knowledge, the two men never met one another, as Wellington was in the Peninsula when the ambassador was in London, and even their garments were at opposite ends of the clothing spectrum. The portrait of Wellington had been commissioned by his close friends, the Arbuthnots, and he wore a dark grey or black coat, a white cravat, with just a glimpse of a small segment of a red ribbon and a tiny bit of the golden badge of one of his royal orders. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he was facing the viewer almost full front. I was delighted to see this portrait, as it is in a private collection and has not been seen publicly for a very long time. Plus, Harriet Arbuthnot was very fond of it, as she thought it an extremely good likeness of the Duke, saying that it showed a little of his softer side. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the portrait of the Persian Ambassador, Haji Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, who had been sent to the Court of St. James by the Shah of Persia in 1809 – 1810, to re-establish an alliance with Britain. The ambassador was painted in the rich and colorful garments of his homeland, including a full turban on his head, the hilt of a knife at his belt. He is shown turned to one side, his hands in his lap, looking out at the viewer. Though I found the placement of these two dichotomous portraits side by side incongruous, I was also glad to see the portrait of Mirza Abul Hassan. He is the very same Persian ambassador who took an interest in the three young Grant sisters, when they attended a rout given in his honor wearing their new cairngorm necklaces.

By far, the biggest disappointment for me was the lack of a single painting from the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor. I had hoped there would be one or two paintings in the show to represent Lawrence’s most important commission. After Napoleon had been defeated, the first time, in 1814, the Prince Regent knighted Lawrence in preparation for setting him the largest and most important commission of the age. Lawrence was to travel to the various capitals of Europe, where he was to paint the portraits of all of the leaders who had been instrumental in the defeat of Bonaparte. Boney’s escape from Elba put that plan on hold, but after Waterloo, Sir Thomas Lawrence set out on his travels. He had already painted some of the heads of state and their generals during the London Peace celebrations of 1814. In 1815, he journeyed about the Continent, painting the portraits of those he had not yet captured. All of the portraits were to be hung in a room being specially built for them in Windsor Castle, known as the Waterloo Chamber. It took Lawrence several years to complete this commission, and sadly, George IV died before the installation at Windsor, which was his idea, was complete. There was a notice posted at the Lawrence exhibition that owing to the huge size and fragility of the paintings, they could not make a transatlantic crossing. To compensate, there were a number of photos of the Waterloo Chamber, and of some of the more important paintings it contains. But photographs are just not the same as the real thing. Maybe the next time I go to England, I will visit Windsor again, and hopefully, there will not be a state event that day and the Waterloo Chamber will be open to the public. One can but hope.

One particular treat of the show for me was the inclusion of an oversized portrait of Granville Leveson-Gower. The portrait is at least twelve feet high and eight feet wide. The painting belongs to the Yale Center for British Art and I suspect it may have been included in the New Haven show to make up for the lack of any of the Waterloo Chamber paintings. Leveson-Gower, was, of course, the long-time lover of Henrietta, Lady Bessborough, who later married her niece, Harriet, the second daughter of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. He was considered by many to be the most handsome man of his age, and Lawrence, who could make even the degenerate Regent look good, certainly did Leveson-Gower justice. He really is quite beautiful in this portrait as he towers over one.

Lawrence’s active years as an artist covered the latter eighteenth century right up until January of 1830, when he died unexpectedly, leaving a number of paintings in his studio unfinished. He was the premier portrait painter of the Regency, and he painted the portraits of many prominent people. There were two portraits of Robert Jenkinson, who later became Lord Liverpool, in the show. One showed him as a young man, just after his maiden speech in Parliament, and the other when he had been Prime Minister for several years. There were portraits of several noted politicians, including George Canning and William Wilberforce. There were also portraits of socially prominent women, including Julia, the wife of Rober Peel, and Princess Sophia. Lawrence was strongly drawn to the theatre, and he painted portraits of a number of actors and actresses. Portraits of both Mrs. Siddons and her brother, John Philip Kemble, were included in the exhibition. But something I especially liked was the inclusion of two self-portraits by Lawrence, one when he had just begun his career in London and another done shortly before his death. You can see how his confidence and skill as a painter had grown over time in those two paintings.

Overall, I thought the Lawrence exhibition was well worth a visit. Especially since it included a number of paintings which have been in private hands for decades or more and have not been seen publicly in all that time. And even though I did miss the lack of paintings from the Waterloo Chamber, the paintings which were included were some of the best of Lawrence’s oeuvre and I am very glad that I did not miss the chance to see them. The exhibit, Thomas Lawrence:   Regency Power and Brilliance runs through next Sunday, 5 June 2011, so there are still a few days left in which to see these magnificent paintings before they are crated up and sent back to their various owners. If you cannot make the show, the companion catalog is well illustrated and if you are interested in Lawrence, Regency art, period costume and furnishings or just a glimpse of some of the more prominent denizens of the Regency, looking their very best, you will enjoy browsing through it.

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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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