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Title: Lawrence
Author: Bensusan, S. L. (Samuel Levy), 1872-1958
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Lawrence" ***

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    MASTERPIECES
    IN COLOUR
    EDITED BY - -
    T. LEMAN HARE

    LAWRENCE

    1769--1830


    “MASTERPIECES IN COLOUR” SERIES

        ARTIST.                        AUTHOR.
    BELLINI.                       GEORGE HAY.
    BOTTICELLI.                    HENRY B. BINNS.
    BOUCHER.                       C. HALDANE MACFALL.
    BURNE-JONES.                   A. LYS BALDRY.
    CARLO DOLCI.                   GEORGE HAY.
    CHARDIN.                       PAUL G. KONODY.
    CONSTABLE.                     C. LEWIS HIND.
    COROT.                         SIDNEY ALLNUTT.
    DA VINCI.                      M. W. BROCKWELL.
    DELACROIX.                     PAUL G. KONODY.
    DÜRER.                         H. E. A. FURST.
    FRA ANGELICO.                  JAMES MASON.
    FRA FILIPPO LIPPI.             PAUL G. KONODY.
    FRAGONARD.                     C. HALDANE MACFALL.
    FRANZ HALS.                    EDGCUMBE STALEY.
    GAINSBOROUGH.                  MAX ROTHSCHILD.
    GREUZE.                        ALYS EYRE MACKLIN.
    HOGARTH.                       C. LEWIS HIND.
    HOLBEIN.                       S. L. BENSUSAN.
    HOLMAN HUNT.                   MARY E. COLERIDGE.
    INGRES.                        A. J. FINBERG.
    LAWRENCE.                      S. L. BENSUSAN.
    LE BRUN, VIGEE.                C. HALDANE MACFALL.
    LEIGHTON.                      A. LYS BALDRY.
    LUINI.                         JAMES MASON.
    MANTEGNA.                      MRS. ARTHUR BELL.
    MEMLINC.                       W. H. J. & J. C. WEALE.
    MILLAIS.                       A. LYS BALDRY.
    MILLET.                        PERCY M. TURNER.
    MURILLO.                       S. L. BENSUSAN.
    PERUGINO.                      SELWYN BRINTON.
    RAEBURN.                       JAMES I. CAW.
    RAPHAEL.                       PAUL G. KONODY.
    REMBRANDT.                     JOSEF ISRAELS.
    REYNOLDS.                      S. L. BENSUSAN.
    ROMNEY.                        C. LEWIS HIND.
    ROSSETTI.                      LUCIEN PISSARRO.
    RUBENS.                        S. L. BENSUSAN.
    SARGENT.                       T. MARTIN WOOD.
    TINTORETTO.                    S. L. BENSUSAN.
    TITIAN.                        S. L. BENSUSAN.
    TURNER.                         C. LEWIS HIND.
    VAN DYCK.                      PERCY M. TURNER.
    VELAZQUEZ.                     S. L. BENSUSAN.
    WATTEAU.                       C. LEWIS HIND.
    WATTS.                         W. LOFTUS HARK.
    WHISTLER.                      T. MARTIN WOOD.
           _Others in Preparation._


    [Illustration: PLATE I.--MASTER LAMBTON. Frontispiece

    (In the collection of the Earl of Durham)

    In painting this portrait (for which he is said to have received
    £600) Lawrence was happy in his sitter. The child has good looks
    and a very intelligent face, but unfortunately he is over-posed.
    One misses the simplicity, the natural attitude, the spontaneous
    gesture, found in portraits of children by Sir Joshua, and feels
    that although Lawrence made an attractive picture, his sitter
    has been made too self-conscious for childhood.]



    LAWRENCE

    BY S. L. BENSUSAN


    ILLUSTRATED WITH EIGHT
    REPRODUCTIONS IN COLOUR

    [Illustration: IN SEMPITERNUM.]

    LONDON: T. C. & E. C. JACK
    NEW YORK: FREDERICK A. STOKES CO.



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


    Plate

        I. Master Lambton                 Frontispiece
              In the collection of the
              Earl of Durham

                                                  Page
      II. Mrs. Siddons                              14
             In the National Gallery

     III. Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. John Julius
          Angerstein                                24
             In the Louvre

      IV. Miss Georgina Lennox, afterwards
          Countess Bathurst                         34
             In the collection of Earl Bathurst

       V. Miss Maria Siddons                        40
             In the Wallace Collection

      VI. Portrait of a Lady                        50
             In the Wallace Collection

     VII. Portrait of Countess Blessington          60
             In the Wallace Collection

    VIII. King George IV.                           70
             In the Wallace Collection



I


The prodigy is no unfamiliar figure in our midst to-day--indeed the
world’s wonder children tend ever to increase in numbers and
attainments. For the most part they belong to the realm of music;
poets and artists must be made as well as born. We are but mildly
excited when the papers announce the arrival in town of a child who
can play the piano like Rubinstein or the violin like Paganini; we
know that though the statement be a gross and misleading exaggeration,
we shall at least hear work that is little short of marvellous from
hands that might well have known no heavier burden than toys. We know,
too, that these precocious children tend to make their début and
disappear, making way for others. If they are to develop their
promise, a long spell of study is inevitable, and for the most part
parents and guardians are more intent upon present profit than future
prestige.

The precocious lad whose talent makes him a painter is rare. Natural
aptitude for drawing and natural sense of colour are not uncommon, but
the possessor of these gifts may remain quite undistinguished. He
generally succeeds in doing so in these days when the old traditions
of art are despised by the _cognoscenti_, and the genuine faculty of
interpretation is not understood or appreciated by the rank and file
of those who pay their annual tribute of one shilling to the
authorities of Burlington House, and are not always ashamed to frame
the colour plates that illustrated papers inflict upon their
long-suffering subscribers. Life is harder for the young painter of
genius than his contemporary musician of like age. It was not always
so, and turning back to the history of England’s accepted artists, the
name of Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A., stands out as one of the most
brilliant examples in the history of art, of untutored skill that came
near to amounting to positive genius.

The history of the Italian painters provides us with many cases in
which men, starting life with talents akin to those that Lawrence
enjoyed, claimed and found a measure of immortality. Only a few will
be found to declare that the English painter is destined to the very
highest place in the annals of British art, but at his best he is a
very notable painter indeed, in spite of the fact that everything in
his life was working in opposition to the best interests of his art.
He had no education, his gifts were exploited shamelessly from the
days when he was a little boy. As he grew up, the imperious need for
money gave to purely commercial work the precious years that should
have been surrendered to study. Happily Fortune was not altogether
unkind. She checked the proper development of rare talent, she kept
the painter from all opportunity of becoming the most outstanding
figure of his generation in the critical eyes of generations to come;
but, on the other hand, she loaded him with all the material favours
within her gift. His career was as brilliant as the passage of a
meteor through the sky; he rose from surroundings of the most
unsatisfactory kind to the highest place in the profession he adorned.
He became the intimate of princes and people of high degree, and, with
certain limitations imposed by an incomplete education, he was a great
painter.

    [Illustration: PLATE II.--MRS. SIDDONS

    (In the National Gallery)

    In this portrait Lawrence has dealt faithfully with the greatest
    actress of his time. The face suggests the latent power that
    could upon occasion hold an audience spell-bound, and there is a
    certain quality of intimacy about this remarkable study that
    shows the painter’s effort to express the full depths of a
    complex character. As in the case of Miss Maria Siddons, the
    painting of this portrait was a labour of love.]

From many of his canvases we can see man’s splendid gifts struggling
for full expression. At times he seems to be a reflection of a still
greater man, Sir Joshua Reynolds; at other times he is the founder of
a tradition that lesser men were to make vulgar and commonplace and
bring ultimately into disrepute. But at every period of his life and
in every aspect of his work with which we are acquainted, Thomas
Lawrence is interesting--perhaps it is permissible to say he is even
lovable. One gets the impression of a strong man who has equipped
himself for life’s race in despite of disadvantages that would have
crushed and quelled the spirit of a weakling, a man who makes for the
most difficult goal, and reaches it in triumph. He is an Englishman
every inch of him, and the spirit that supported him is one he shared
with the greatest of this island’s citizens. Even the most severe of
his critics cannot hide their admiration of the man, though they are
most acutely conscious of the shortcomings of the artist.

It is fair to remember, too, that much of the painter’s work was done
under certain disadvantages inherent in the times of his activity.
With the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth
century, costume was stiff and ugly to an extreme that excites our
laughter now. The age of artificiality was upon land, and Sir Thomas
Lawrence was not so well equipped for making the best of it as were
Reynolds and Gainsborough, who came immediately before him. That he
succeeded so often in making the personality of a sitter overcome the
absurdities of dress and decoration is an eloquent tribute to his art.
His treatment of children is frankly delightful but frankly
derivative; it is only necessary to refer to such portraits as the
“Childhood’s Innocence,” “Master Lambton,” “Nature,” and the “Countess
Gower and Daughter,” to see how great is his debt to one who was
_facile princeps_ among the painters of childhood--Sir Joshua
himself--and how far he fell short of his teacher’s greatness. But the
gallery of children is a small one; the collection of representative
men and women of his time is far larger, more representative, and
painting many of these portraits the artist is speaking with his own
voice, the voice that lured so many men of a later generation to
assume it as their own, with results that are little short of
lamentable. Students of the life of Sir Thomas Lawrence must surely
have shared the writer’s regret that the strong soul, the sure hand,
and the far-seeing eye were not destined to have lived and thrived in
the golden age of the Italian Renaissance. Then such natural gifts
were stimulated to the highest possible pitch of development by the
splendour of a more flamboyant life, the glory of a less restricted
power, the rare beauty of pageant and of costume unknown to late
eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, in a land where
beauty was the very keynote of existence. There, poverty was a
stimulus to countless artists whose very names thrill us as we mention
them, men whose genius is enshrined in the galleries of Venice,
Florence, and Rome. Under Italian skies such gifts as Lawrence
possessed would have blossomed and budded and filled the face of the
world with fruit. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century skies in England
were never bright enough to teach Lawrence the one secret that his
canvases lack--the secret of exquisite colour that came to Sir Joshua
in his prime, though, alas, it faded from so many canvases as surely
as it passed from the laughing faces that thronged his studio.

Taste, Lawrence had in a very marked measure; his draughtsmanship was
facile and sure to an almost dangerous degree; but in point of colour,
as in some of the more subtle qualities of portrait-painting, he
lacked the equality of gifts that would have silenced our later-day
criticism. Only when we turn to consider the conditions under which
his early life was passed, and the labours that were enforced upon him
at a tender age, do we cease to complain of his slight limitations in
wonder of the great gifts that passed unscathed through his troubled
childhood, his scanty days of training, his long years of devoted
toil, his season of honours and great rewards. The record of
Lawrence’s life is full of interest that has been heightened in the
past few years by the publication in 1904 of “An Artist’s Love Story,”
edited by Mr. Oswald G. Knapp. With the issue of this work, made up
of hitherto unpublished letters written by the painter, Mrs. Siddons
and her daughters, Martha and Maria, a fresh and interesting light was
thrown upon the artist’s relations with the great actress and upon his
devotion to her daughters; the countless stories and rumours that
passed current in his day have been corrected. Through this
correspondence we see more of the man than any biography had ever
succeeded in showing us, and as the painter had been dead for more
than seventy years when the book was published, and had left no
descendants, there could be no suggestion of impropriety in the
publication. Many of the letters are more than a century old.

In the light of the leading biographies, the brief one by Redgrave,
the longer and more interesting biography by Allan Cunningham, and
some others of less note, and with the aid of this volume of
correspondence, it is possible to set down at all necessary length the
story of the artist’s life, and to speak with some authority of the
conditions under which the bulk of his work was done.



II

THE PAINTER’S LIFE


Thomas Lawrence was born in the year 1769, when Sir Joshua Reynolds
was in his forty-sixth year, and Gainsborough was two-and-forty years
his senior. His father, after whom he was named, was a ne’er-do-well
of decent birth and good education who had made a clandestine marriage
with a lady of better social position than his own; for Lucy Read, who
married Thomas Lawrence, senior, was related to the Powis family.
Because she listened to his suit she was disowned and disinherited by
her relations. Her influence upon her son would seem to have been
wholly good; indeed he was devoted to both parents, though his father
started to exploit the child’s gifts in nursery days; and his grief
when the old people died was very severe. Thomas Lawrence, senior,
“stiff in opinion, always in the wrong,” was “everything in turn and
nothing long.” Attorney, verse-writer, actor, exciseman, and farmer,
he had become a tavern-keeper when his sorely tried wife presented him
with the baby who was destined to paint the portrait of Benjamin West
that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and to succeed him as
President of the Royal Academy.

    [Illustration: PLATE III.--PORTRAIT OF MR. AND MRS. JOHN JULIUS
    ANGERSTEIN

    (In the Louvre)

    This work, despite one or two regrettable conventions from which
    the painter was never entirely free when he put more than one
    figure on his canvas, is of more than passing interest. Mr.
    Angerstein was a great collector of pictures, a wealthy man to
    whom the painter was often in debt. The head of Mrs. Angerstein
    is beautifully posed.]

At a very early age little Thomas Lawrence developed a wonderful gift
for making life-like sketches, and at the same time he inherited his
father’s gift of recitation. Such an effective combination seemed to
be too good to waste, and the elder Lawrence employed the lad to
improve custom in the Bristol tavern over which he presided in his own
careless fashion. Visitors were invited to hear the infant prodigy
recite, or if their ears were duller than their eyes, they were
invited to sit for their portraits. Doubtless this was excellent for
custom, but it did not avail altogether, for the Bristol house on the
great Bath Road soon passed into the hands of unsatisfied creditors,
and the family moved, not without considerable private aid, to the
Black Bear Inn at Devizes, then a place of importance to the coaches
passing on their way to and from the west. At Devizes the boy
received a little education, nothing better than a smattering, and was
called upon at short intervals to exhibit his precocity. He soon found
an influential and appreciative audience.

A large proportion of those who patronised the Black Bear Inn were men
of position and culture; they could not only appreciate the boy’s
gifts, but could reward them. Indeed we read that a few years later
the elder Lawrence received an offer from one of his old-time
visitors, Sir Henry Harpur, to send the boy to Italy and have his
gifts developed in the best schools. Unhappily the father knew as much
about art as he did about inn-keeping; he was indignant rather than
pleased with the suggestion that foreign study could improve the
child’s gifts. “My son’s talents,” he replied, “require no
cultivation,” and this answer says more for his stupidity than all
his repeated failures to adapt himself to any one of the many
occupations he followed so unsuccessfully until the time came when he
could live in comparative affluence upon the proceeds of his boy’s
talent. Doubtless in the latter days he ever prided himself upon the
discernment that had kept the lad by his side.

The artist’s earliest work would seem to have consisted of chalk
drawings which were produced with great rapidity and sold to his
father’s customers for half a guinea or a guinea each. The likeness in
each case must have been good, for it is on record that one of his
earliest efforts, a sketch of Lady Kenyon, who stayed at his father’s
inn with her husband, was easily recognised five-and-twenty years
later. But drawing was not the only accomplishment of his early days.
He was, as has been remarked earlier, a clever reciter. Garrick heard
him twice when he was a lad, and on the second occasion asked his
father if “Tommy was to be an actor or a painter?” The father had no
doubt at all about the profession that promised to be the more
profitable, and, in later years, when the artist was very anxious to
go upon the stage, was at great pains to persuade him not to do so. As
his son was more intent upon helping the family than anything else,
the advice was taken, and doubtless the results justified it. The
theatre could have offered no equal reward for talent, however great.
To the end of his days the painter was a fluent reciter, and possessed
a mastery over his voice that could turn every tone into a caress.
More than one woman was misled by it into thinking that the artist
was seriously in love with her.

As early as 1785 young Lawrence received his first public recognition;
it came from the Society of Arts, which was then quite a serious rival
of the Royal Academy. He sent a copy on glass of a Transfiguration,
perhaps one he had seen at Corsham House, the seat of the Methuen
family. It was made two years before, when the painter was fourteen
years of age, and although the rules of the Society did not admit of a
work being put in for competition more than a year after it was
painted, the Council felt bound to make an exception in this case, and
presented him with five guineas and a silver-gilt palette. For a boy,
and he was nothing more, this was a considerable triumph, but it had
been led up to by much startling work at Devizes and Oxford. When
young Lawrence was ten years old, Daines Barrington (Gilbert White’s
correspondent) had referred to him as “a lad who can copy historical
pictures amazingly, and is likewise an excellent reader of blank
verse.”

From Devizes the family had gone to Oxford, where they lived and
thrived upon the proceeds of the boy’s pencil. Among his sitters were
the Bishops of Oxford and Llandaff, Earls Bathurst and Warwick,
Countess Egremont, and many others. The visitors to the inn at Bristol
and Devizes had spread his fame, and Oxford was such a liberal patron
that Thomas Lawrence, senior, moved to Bath, where he took a house at
one hundred pounds a year rental as a boarding-house. Sitters were
expected, and did not fail. Here it was that young Lawrence painted
Mrs. Siddons for the first time, that Sir Henry Harpur offered to
adopt him, and that Hoare the painter, to whom the boy was indebted
for many hints, wanted him to sit for a picture of the youthful
Christ. Small wonder that if at the age of seventeen, after he had
taken up oils instead of crayon, and had copied a certain number of
old masters--Rembrandt, Reynolds, Titian--his thoughts turned to
London, the Mecca of all British art pilgrims; and he wrote to his
mother with the unblushing confidence of youth to say, he “would risk
his reputation for the painting of a head”--the reputation of
seventeen years--“with any save Sir Joshua.” Gainsborough, Romney, and
Hoppner were very much in evidence then, and the challenge would seem
an odd one if it had been more than a lad’s confidential boast to his
mother.

    [Illustration: PLATE IV.--MISS GEORGINA LENNOX, AFTERWARDS
    COUNTESS BATHURST

    (In the collection of Earl Bathurst)

    Fine colouring and effective modelling are noticeable qualities
    in this, one of the painter’s highly successful portraits. Here
    we have a painting that does not suffer from the costume of the
    sitter and a rather daring but completely fortunate effect in
    the contrast between the curtain background and the dress. The
    landscape is, as usual, quite conventional and uninspired.]

So he came to London, entered himself as an Academy student, and took
apartments in Leicester Fields, a district made popular by Sir Joshua.
His father was behind him in all this; and as there was some money in
hand, and a good send-off was necessary, an exhibition of the boy’s
work was arranged. To make it still more attractive, the worthy
innkeeper included a collection of stuffed birds recently acquired.
Between the amateurs of art and ornithology the exhibition fell to the
ground; it was a failure unredeemed. Happily the funds were still
sufficient to enable young Lawrence to take a house in Duke Street,
St. James’, and a studio in Jermyn Street near by. Hoare introduced
him to Sir Joshua, for whom Lawrence’s admiration was ever
whole-hearted. The great painter looked at his work, and remarked,
“Study nature--study nature.” In years to come, looking at some of
the famous early portraits, he remarked with the rare generosity that
was one of his characteristics, “This young man has begun at a point
of excellence where I left off.”

Success did not come with Lawrence from the provinces; a few years
were to pass before it visited him in London and elected to remain
associated with his work as long as he lived. He found many friends,
and was much at the house of Mrs. Siddons, whose portrait as Zara he
had painted four years earlier. Her family consisted then of two boys,
Henry and George, and two daughters, Sarah Martha (Sally), then twelve
years old, and Maria, aged eight. It was round the lives of these two
girls that the strangest romance of Lawrence’s life was to be woven.
Both Sally and Maria were very attractive girls, with the fragile
beauty that suggests early in life a tendency to consumption. John
Kemble, another firm friend of Lawrence, was brother of Mrs. Siddons.

The first three years that the artist spent in London were not
associated with any striking successes, but in 1790 a portrait of the
Queen and Princess Amelia attracted considerable attention, and
pleased King George III., who liked British artists best if they had
not studied abroad. The royal patronage came at the right time.
Already Lawrence was beginning to experience the financial
difficulties that never left him as long as he lived, no matter what
his income might be. He was making an allowance of £300 a year to his
parents, and for the rest, his earnings “melted,” says Allan
Cunningham, “like snow on a thatch.” King George was royal in his
patronage, and expressed to the Royal Academy his wish that the young
artist should be made an Associate forthwith. To this suggestion there
was great opposition, and in the end the difficulty was solved by
making the artist a Supplementary Associate, the only one in the
Academy’s history.

In 1792 great honours were achieved. The King appointed Lawrence to be
his painter in ordinary, in succession to the late Sir Joshua
Reynolds, passing over Romney, Hoppner, Opie, and others, whose claims
to the honour were held to be greater. Nothing succeeds like success,
and the Dilettanti Society, suspending their regulation that said
nobody who had not crossed the Alps could join their brotherhood,
elected Lawrence and made him one of their chosen painters. He painted
full-length portraits of the King and Queen, to be sent as a
present to the Emperor of China, moved from Duke Street to Bond
Street, and raised his prices all round, charging one hundred guineas
for full-length portraits, fifty for half-lengths, and twenty-five for
heads. In 1794 he received the full honours of the Academy; a year
later the poet Cowper sat to him, and was so pleased with the portrait
that he invited the artist to Weston.

    [Illustration: PLATE V.--MISS MARIA SIDDONS

    (In the Wallace Collection)

    The portrait of the lady with whom the artist was in love, and
    to whom he paid his vows, is a tribute to one side of the
    painter’s art. He has contrived to put far more into it than the
    mere quality of attractiveness. The constitutional delicacy of
    the sitter, her refined and sensitive nature, are clearly
    expressed, and the colour harmony is attractive.]

Soon after this Lawrence would seem to have had some grave doubt
as to whether his gifts were completely expressed through the
medium of portraiture. The dramatic sense was very strong in
him--portrait-painting could not quite satisfy it. To be “master of
the unlettered nameless faces” sufficed him no longer, and he started
a series of big canvases that added more to his labours than his
fame. Staying with his great friend Fuseli at a house in Pembrokeshire
he saw the artist leaning over some rocks that stand above the Bay of
Bristol. The pose gave him an idea for a big canvas known as “Satan,”
that was painted in 1797, found its way to the Duke of Norfolk’s
collection, and then to the Academy authorities. A year later he gave
London its first view of “Coriolanus in the house of Aufidius,” and
followed this with other classical studies--Hamlet, Cato, and others,
for which John Kemble sat.

In the opening days of 1798 Lawrence proposed to Maria Siddons, and
the family’s consent was given to the union. The engagement was brief.
Within a few weeks he confessed to Mrs. Siddons that he had mistaken
his feelings, and asked to be allowed to woo Sally Siddons instead.
To this startling request Mrs. Siddons gave her consent, but kept the
truth back from her husband and brothers. To Maria the shock was
naturally a severe one, and for a consumptive girl, whose medical
treatment consisted of confinement to the house and repeated
bleedings, it may even have been a contributory cause of death. Be
this as it may, and her correspondence shows that she did recover from
the first shock, the truth remains that she passed away in October of
the same year, and on her death-bed implored her sister not to marry
Lawrence. In “An Artist’s Love Story,” to which reference was made in
an earlier chapter, the whole story of the engagement and its tragic
_dénouement_ is set out at length.

There seems no reason to doubt that Lawrence would have married Sally
Siddons had he been able to do so, when Maria had passed from the
scene, and that in years to come he was profoundly moved by her death.
We know, too, that he died a bachelor, though the opportunities for
marriage that came in his way were almost startling in their number;
so it well may be that there were deeper springs of devotion and
loyalty in his heart than were expressed by his pen. Sally Siddons
died in 1803, when Lawrence was thirty-four years old, and had more
than a quarter of a century to live. We may then give him the benefit
of the doubts that have arisen in the minds of his contemporaries and
biographers. Some still declare that Maria Siddons died of a broken
heart, but the recently published correspondence throws a measure of
doubt upon the statement; and fair-minded people will incline to the
belief expressed by Allan Cunningham that “she died of a disease and
a doctor.”

While the social tragedy was affecting his private life, Lawrence was
making great headway in his profession and out of it. In society he
was an established favourite; he had a handsome face, a fluent and
honeyed tongue, he wrote agreeable verses, and made facile sketches,
which he would give freely to his friends and acquaintances. His most
intimate associates were Smirke, the architect of the British Museum,
Farrington and Fuseli the artists, John Kemble the actor, and Mrs.
Siddons, whom he painted as Aspasia as well as Zara, though he never
approached the beauty of the Gainsborough Siddons in our national
collection. Some of his paintings went to engravers, who paid big
prices for them; and though after moving from Bond Street to Greek
Street he settled finally at 65 Russell Square, he never entertained
on such a scale as his position would have justified. In fact he
seldom or never gave a dinner party, excusing himself on the ground
that he had neither wife nor mistress to superintend one. His prices
rose steadily; he took half his fee in advance, but was always in debt
and difficulty, and frequently forced to borrow at a high rate of
interest. A devoted and conscientious worker, he always stood to his
canvas, and seldom spoke to his sitter. At a first sitting he would
draw the sitter’s head, at the second he would start painting. He told
friends that on one occasion he worked for thirty-seven hours
consecutively, a marvellous feat for a man who never sat down to
paint.

In the year 1801 Lawrence passed through a very critical time. The
Princess of Wales sat to him at Montague House, Blackheath; he stayed
in the house while at work on the portrait, spoke and wrote in rather
indiscreet fashion, guiltless of everything save enthusiasm, and
provoked a scandal of the first magnitude that alienated royal favour.
The scandal grew and spread and was partly the subject of the
commission of inquiry that sat several years later, and whose labours
were known as “The Delicate Investigation.” Lawrence was not even
referred to in the report issued by the commissioners, but he made a
difficult position worse by going out of the way publicly to declare
his own and the Princess’s innocence. For some time after the scandal
was broached, the lady visitors to the studio in Russell Square were
few and far between, and Lawrence was never as happy with men as with
women. The genius of his brush was essentially feminine.

In the years wherein the sun of court favour was withheld, and
fashionable women were less constant in their attention, he was
nevertheless extremely busy, and was able to raise his prices in 1802,
1806, 1808, and 1810, the last date being the year of Hoppner’s death.
His other rivals included Beecher and Owen. For one who had
comparatively few expenses, a large income, and neither parents, wife,
nor children to support, the general position should have been very
satisfactory, but nothing seemed able to keep Lawrence in easy
financial circumstances. Financial difficulties followed him as they
had followed his father before him; neither his great industry nor his
raised prices availed to keep him from all manner of small troubles.

    [Illustration: PLATE VI.--PORTRAIT OF A LADY

    (In the Wallace Collection)

    This portrait of an unknown sitter is as happily posed as it is
    unhappily dressed. One notices two points of interest--the fine
    painting of the head and the atmosphere of self-consciousness
    that is common to so many of the Lawrence portraits.]

The early years of the nineteenth century passed without any very
stirring events apart from the appointment of the Commission for the
“Delicate Investigation.” Lawrence kept his place, earned a great deal
of money, spent a great part before he received it, met some of the
greatest men of the day--statesmen, soldiers, _literati_,
ecclesiastics, and the rest--and was a frequent visitor to country
houses where he took part in private theatricals. Indeed he may be
said to have survived the loss of royal favour very creditably. As the
years passed, subduing all recollection of the scandal associated with
Montague House, Blackheath, his name was brought forward again in
Court circles, where he was greatly missed by the women, if not by the
men. There was no other painter who could combine the portrait with
truth and flattery in such exquisite proportions that they conveyed
an impression of youth and beauty while stating all essential truths.
The truth was well summed up by one of Sir Thomas’s biographers who
wrote: “Lawrence lavished summer colours upon autumn and on winter,
and gave to declining years the vigour of the life of youth.”

It had long been an ambition of the painter to visit Paris, and when
in 1814 the entrance of the allied armies into the French capital
opened it to travellers, Lawrence was prompt to take advantage of the
situation. Now after many years he hoped to see the famous collection
in the Louvre, enriched as it had been of late years by the thefts of
Marshal Soult and others of Napoleon’s generals with a _flair_ for
works of art. But before he could complete his work the painter was
summoned back to London. On the intervention of the first Marquis of
Londonderry, the Prince Regent had taken the proper and charitable
view of the Montague House affair.

Lawrence was commissioned to paint for Windsor Castle a commemoration
gallery of those who had restored the Bourbons. The sitters chosen
were the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia, Blücher, and Hetman
Platoff. The portraits were painted, and at about the same time,
Wellington and Metternich sat to the painter. Lawrence recovered all
the ground he had lost, and gained fresh honours in rapid succession.
In the year of Waterloo he painted the portrait of the Prince Regent,
who knighted him; in 1817 he painted at Claremont the portrait of the
Princess Charlotte. To these years his biographers trace the
beginning of his relations with Mrs. Wolfe, wife of a diplomat
accredited to this country. Cunningham refers to her as the wife of a
Danish Consul, Mr. Knapp says she was the wife of the German
Ambassador, but the point is not worth investigating. Suffice it she
was a clever, attractive woman, separated from her husband, and the
artist seems to have established with her intimate but platonic
relations. He was devoted to her, but, then, he had a very susceptible
heart. The friendship continued until the death of the lady, whom the
artist survived only a few months.

In 1818 a further and greater honour than any that had come his way
hitherto was conferred upon Sir Thomas. He was sent to Aix-la-Chapelle
to paint members of the Congress then sitting there, with instructions
to proceed to Vienna and Rome. An allowance of one thousand a year
for travelling expenses made the commission still more attractive, and
the artist, free at last to travel and to work in the most stimulating
surroundings Europe could provide, remained away from England for a
year and a half. In his work he distinguished himself. His sitters
included Emperor Francis of Austria, Louis XVIII., Charles X.,
Archduke Charles, Metternich, Techernicheff, Ouvaroff, Hardenberg,
Nesselrode, Baron Gentz, Earl Bathurst, Lord Liverpool, the Marquis of
Londonderry, the Duke of Cambridge, and Mr. Canning. In Rome the aged
Pontiff Pius VII. gave him nine sittings, and he painted the portrait
of the great Cardinal Gonsalvi, “the Pitt of Rome.” But it was not
only to paint that he went to the Eternal City; he had much to learn,
and some of the letters he wrote to London during his stay are
remarkable for their sound judgment and insight. The supreme master of
art for him was Michael Angelo, following him Raphael, Correggio,
Titian, Sir Joshua, and perhaps J. M. W. Turner came in the order
named. To the end Lawrence was faithful in his devotion to the art of
the first President of the R.A. “I don’t see why British artists wish
to travel abroad when we have Sir Joshua in England,” he said in his
untravelled days. He was not heard to express this opinion again in
the years when he had crossed “the narrow seas.” Eighteen months of
foreign travel did much for him; he brought a wider mind and a bigger
intelligence home with him; to say nothing of a collection of gifts
from European rulers and honours from many academies of art. From the
social standpoint it is hard to believe that life could have given
more than it gave in 1818-19.

Lawrence was able to visit several Italian cities, and returned to
London at the end of his eighteen months’ sojourn in the country, to
find that Benjamin West had just died, and that he had been elected to
succeed him as President of the Royal Academy. His attitude was
dignified. “There are,” he said, “others better qualified to be
President; I shall, however, discharge the duties as well and wisely
as I can. I shall be true to the Academy and, in my intentions, just
and impartial.” In giving his consent to Lawrence’s election, King
George IV. presented the new P.R.A. with a gold chain and medal. King
George also sat to him,[1] and was heard to say that Lawrence was “a
well-bred gentleman.”

    [1] The portrait in the Wallace Collection reproduced here.

In many respects the Academy chose wisely. Sir Thomas was a man who
had moved and still moved in the highest social circles, whose
pleasant manners made friends and conciliated foes; he was very
popular with all save the most critical of contemporary artists. But,
on the other hand, he was never a great teacher, and his addresses to
the students were of little worth. He would seem to have entertained
the idea of running a studio after the old Italian fashion; perhaps he
had learned about it in Rome. There would have been a certain number
of student apprentices to prepare the work, and he would have trained
the cleverest among them to do still more. Unfortunately there was not
enough money to start the required establishment; not all the foreign
travel, the handsome presents, and the considerable fees had
availed to stem the chronic leakage in the exchequer, and the scheme
came to nothing. Sir Thomas resumed his place in London life, bringing
an enhanced reputation; and all the old scandals being quite
forgotten, the house in Russell Square was thronged with fair women
who trusted to the artist, and not in vain, to make them fairer still.
His portrait of Lady Blessington, reproduced here, called for
recognition from Lord Byron in the stanzas beginning--

    “Were I now as I was, I had sung
      What Lawrence has painted so well.”

Both Byron and Sir Walter Scott spoke of the social graces of Sir
Thomas. His manners would seem to have been distinguished, though his
taste, generally correct, was not always above suspicion.

    [Illustration: PLATE VII.--PORTRAIT OF COUNTESS BLESSINGTON

    (In the Wallace Collection)

    This portrait is one by which the painter is best known, and is
    the singularly felicitous expression of a very beautiful woman.
    It reveals the strength, and perhaps a little of the weakness,
    of the artist, and made a great sensation when first exhibited
    in London, moving Lord Byron to an expression of praise, to
    which brief reference is made in the text.]

In 1825 he was called to Paris, where he painted Charles X., the
Dauphin, and others, and received the title of Chevalier of the
Legion of Honour. The Academies of St. Luke in Rome, and those of
Florence, Venice, Bologna, Turin, Vienna, and Copenhagen, had given
him honorary memberships; the Fine Arts Academy of America had done
the same, and there were other bodies that had expressed their
sentiments in similar form.

As he approached his sixtieth year, Sir Thomas would seem to have
become conscious of failing health and the double burden of old age
and loneliness. He had acquired every honour within his grasp, but he
had lost his best friends through death, and monetary worries still
troubled him. This last fact is the more surprising, because his
prices were now very high indeed. They ranged from two hundred guineas
for a head to seven hundred for an “extra length portrait,” and even
at these high prices there was no lack of patronage. He had no
extravagances of a discreditable kind, but he could not resist the
chance of buying a fine drawing, whether old or new, and as, when his
collection was sold after his death for twenty thousand pounds, it was
said to have fetched far less than it cost, one large source of
expenditure is accounted for. Then again the President was a
singularly generous man, who could not refuse an appeal, and some of
those who were round him were quick to take advantage of his weakness.
Making every allowance for his expenditure as collector and
philanthropist, it is hard to understand why he could earn so much and
have so little. Even when he painted the portrait of Sir Robert Peel
he wrote letters asking for the money before the work was finished.

Happily the statesman was a good and understanding friend; not only
did he entertain the artist very frequently, but he commissioned him
to paint a gallery of distinguished Englishmen for his country
house--a commission the painter did not live to execute.

In the late twenties of the nineteenth century, Sir Thomas discovered
a serious state of mind and became a churchman. The death of Mrs.
Wolfe, to whom reference has been made, in the year 1829, grieved him
so deeply that he laid aside his brush for a month. The Irish Academy
gave him its honorary membership, and the city of Bristol, in which he
was born, gave its freedom, and these were the last of his honours.
Those about him noted an ever-increasing feebleness, a failing
interest in life, though he stuck manfully to his duty, and early in
January 1830 the end came. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral by
the side of Reynolds and Benjamin West. All the Academicians attended,
scores of the aristocracy sent mourning coaches, and Sir Robert Peel
was among the pall-bearers.



III

THE PAINTER’S WORK


If in our estimate of a man’s work we could pause to consider the
difficulties under which the work was accomplished, there would be
much to say for many of those who are lightly esteemed. But in
criticism there are no extenuating circumstances; the artist, whether
he work with words or pigment, notes or marble, is judged on his
merits with as much justice as is ours to command. No judgment is
final. John Ruskin described a Whistler nocturne as “a pot of paint
flung in the public’s face,” but we value these nocturnes even more
highly than Ruskin’s own faultless prose. We know that the critic was
better equipped to write than to judge, and we have reversed his
verdict. The history of all art, from the work of the early Tuscan and
Umbrian painters, with their backgrounds of gold, down to the time of
the French impressionists, who bring the wide spaces of air, sky, and
sea on to their canvas, is the history of a constantly changing
verdict. The men most heartily acclaimed by their contemporaries have
often failed in their appeal to succeeding generations, while in other
cases “the stone that the builder rejected has become the corner
head-stone.”

As far as Sir Thomas Lawrence is concerned, it is well to remember
that his first reputation was not made by artists, but by people whose
acquaintance with the essentials of a great and enduring art is ever
of the slightest. His gifts were many and attractive, but they could
never have deceived the men who were his contemporaries, although
Reynolds’ generous criticism might justify the idea that they did.
Fuseli after declaring that he painted eyes as well as Titian, could
find no other praise. Opie said, “Lawrence made coxcombs of his
sitters, and his sitters made a coxcomb of Lawrence,” but then Opie,
together with Romney, Hoppner, and others, had been passed over by
King George III. when in 1792 he appointed Lawrence to be his Painter
in Ordinary, in place of Sir Joshua deceased. Compared with his great
contemporaries, we see at once that Sir Thomas Lawrence was by no
means a great colourist, he had no marked skill in composition, the
effect of more than one figure on his canvas is seldom pleasing, his
backgrounds were never interesting or even distinctive. That he was
handicapped by the absurd and artificial dress convention of his day
is undeniable, but he was hardly as happy in dealing with it as were
some of his contemporaries. Why then, we may ask ourselves, was
Lawrence a favourite artist from the days when as a little boy he made
crayon drawings of visitors to his father’s inn, down to the time when
he was sent on a tour of the chief European capitals to paint Kings,
Kaiser, and Pope? Why, while artists remained critical and were even
grudging in the measure of justice they meted out to him did all the
wealthy patrons of art prefer his studio to that of his
contemporaries, face the heavy and constantly increasing charges
without protest, and rejoice in the possession of the canvas that his
brush had covered? The reason is not far to seek.

    [Illustration: PLATE VIII.--KING GEORGE IV.

    (In the Wallace Collection)

    This portrait, painted in the last years of the artist’s life,
    when he was President of the Royal Academy, is a notable study,
    despite its rather absurd proportions and artificial background.
    The figure is rather stiffly posed if carefully observed, the
    brushwork highly skilled. It was painted when Sir Thomas had
    returned from the Continent, after a careful and discriminating
    study of the Italian Masters.]

Lawrence looked upon his sitters with an eye that magnified all points
of beauty or attraction and passed over the failings, the blemishes,
the points that in more conscientious eyes might have made a portrait
true rather than merely attractive. It was but necessary to have the
beginnings of beauty, to have some attractive features, and Lawrence
would go to them instinctively, they would be the foundation of his
study, other points of less attraction would fade from the
representation on canvas. It was his singular gift, not only to see
beauty, but to pick out the aspects of the sitter that would give the
most attractive result possible without absolutely rank flattery or
deception.

Naturally enough when this gift became recognised the artist’s studio
was thronged by the prettiest women in London. Whatever their beauty,
Lawrence would interpret it in terms of the utmost generosity. The
charms transferred to canvas to defy the ravages of time were safe to
be at least a little in excess of those that existed in the sitter.
Praise and patronage are notoriously more difficult to fight against
than neglect, and as time went on Sir Thomas turned more and more to
the task of perfecting prettiness. The female heads do not suffer from
this--perhaps they are the better for it--but the male ones do; in
place of strength we find effeminacy, and many of his men sitters
narrowly escaped the charge of being pretty. Allan Cunningham does not
hesitate to express his conviction that Lawrence became weaker and
more effeminate of set purpose because he found that by doing so he
kept his dangerous rival Hoppner at bay. This marks the difference
between Reynolds and Lawrence, for the first named was strengthened by
the rivalry of Romney; at least Lawrence himself thought that some of
Sir Joshua’s finest efforts were produced by Romney’s rivalry.

After 1810, when the danger of this competition had passed with
Hoppner’s death, Lawrence’s style was set. France and Italy came too
late to strengthen a man who in so many ways was the spoilt child of
fortune. Another reason for his weakness may be found in the desire to
please. When he painted women he flattered them; when he talked to
them he did the same. His children have a certain self-consciousness
that does not belong to the children of Sir Joshua and Gainsborough;
they can’t help posing and looking at their best, for their parents
and relatives may have been expected to appreciate a little pose.
Where men are concerned the strength of Lawrence lay in the masterful
character of the sitters themselves, rather than in any force of hand
or brain. Had he been called upon to paint common-place types, his
reputation would hardly have been what it is to-day, but his sitters
were the pick of the generation, men who played no small part in
deciding the fate of Europe at one of the most critical periods of
history. Reference has been made already to some of the greatest; of
the others, he was extremely successful with John Kemble, John Wilson
Croker, Curran, Sir James Mackintosh, and Lord Thurlow, this last
portrait being the one at which, according to his own account, he
laboured for thirty-seven hours without stopping or sitting down.
Among his most successful portraits of fair women may be mentioned
those of the Duchesses of Sutherland and Gloucester, Mrs. Arbuthnot,
the Countess of Charlemont and children, the Countess Grey, Lady
Ellenborough, Lady Leinster, Lady Emily Cowper, Lady Elizabeth
Leveson-Gower, Miss Croker, and Lady Blessington. This is no more than
a random selection; his portraits and drawings of fair women are
numbered by the hundred.

Lawrence was a man who was prompt to take advantage of the
opportunities that were showered upon him. One of his critics said of
him, “His manners please everybody, save the two or three who look to
the grain rather than the varnish.” This is very harsh and severe, for
it need have occasioned no surprise had Lawrence been self-conscious
and awkward, overbearing, or even pompous. His success might well have
turned his head, and there are indeed occasions when his taste might
certainly have been impeached; but, all things considered, he
preserved a wonderfully level head, and in the latter days, when he
was in as much social demand as anybody in London, he remained
faithful to his brush--so faithful, that the work coming from his
studio was always his own. He employed no assistants, though we have
seen that he had the idea at one time of keeping something like a
school in his own house. In private life he was fairly abstemious, he
had no vices, nor did any young painter appeal in vain to him for
advice or encouragement. Unfortunately those who sat at his feet
learned the secret of his weakness rather than his strength, and a
study of a man or a woman after Lawrence is something that defies
criticism within the limits of courtesy, while showing that there was
more in Lawrence himself than the keenest of his critics would always
care to admit.

His colour was never equal to that of Reynolds, but his pictures have
faced the time test better; the secret of the iridescent glaze that
the first President of the R.A. could lend to a canvas was apparently
unknown to Lawrence. On his death nearly one hundred canvases were
exhibited at the British Institute, and his popularity may be gauged
from the result of the exhibition, which yielded three thousand
pounds, the money being given to his nieces. His tastes in art were
catholic, and his love of attractive drawings has been referred to. It
was said by some that the £20,000 the collection yielded was less by
far than it had cost, but this, as far as the writer can ascertain, is
conjecture. He had drawings of unequal merit, the best being by
Michael Angelo and Raphael, and these went to Oxford University. His
Italian journey quickened the best side of Lawrence, and justifies
the regret that he was not able to visit Italy as a lad. His instinct
for good work was quick and true; he never hesitated for long between
the best and the second best, giving the preference to Michael Angelo
as soon as he had compared his work in Rome with that of Raphael. In
the last years of his life he gave up the creamy white of his earlier
canvases for a pure white, taking the hint from the old Venetian
masters, by whom he was deeply impressed. He exhibited over three
hundred portraits, and painted many that were not for exhibition.
To-day he may be seen at his best in Windsor Castle, but London claims
some of his successful canvases.

Study and the life of Sir Thomas Lawrence begins and ends on the note
of wonder. It is easy to point out his shortcomings, but it is far
more difficult to account for his merits when we remember that he
started to earn his family’s living before he was seven years old, and
received a public recognition at the age of sixteen for work completed
two years before. He had no student life in the true sense of the
term, no painstaking teacher, only one or two friends to give him
hints more or less valuable. His strength lay in accurate
draughtsmanship and a wonderfully quick eye for effect, his weakness
in the effeminacy of his handling, the indifference to minor details
of composition, and the general inferiority of his colour sense to
that of his great contemporaries. But from a lad who was self-taught
and never ventured to handle colours until he was seventeen, nothing
better could be expected, and something not as good might well have
been pardoned. Finally, it may be suggested that while Sir Thomas
Lawrence will never take equal rank with the greatest of his
contemporaries, while Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hoppner, and others will
take precedence of him, his best work will always command a large
measure of genuine admiration. It will not fail to attract the
attention of the student and the connoisseur, while his life must be
full of interest to those who realise how talents that were not of the
highest rank did almost as much for Lawrence as greater gifts did for
Velazquez, Rubens, Hans Holbein the younger, and others whose brushes
were a powerful aid to diplomacy in days past.


    The plates are printed by BEMROSE & SONS, LTD., London and Derby
               The text at the BALLANTYNE PRESS, Edinburgh





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