Sir Thomas Lawrence was the most successful painter of the Romantic age. With a client base that encompassed the length and breadth of the aristocracy, his work gives us a tremendous historical insight into the society of the Regency and the Napoleonic Wars.
Born in the late 18th century to a Devises innkeeper, his talent was soon discovered to be prodigious, though he had no formal training. By the age of ten he was drawing portraits of the clientele at the inn. He moved in 1787 to London, where he spent three months at the Royal Academy Schools gradually changing his preferred medium from pastels to oil painting. He was lucky enough to catch the eye of
Sir Joshua Reynolds
(1723-1792), who encouraged him to use his studio for studying and copying.
Lawrence’s career quickly escalated. His first full length portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789 to much acclaim. In 1791 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and in 1792 he succeeded Reynolds as Painter in Ordinary to the King, then George III. In 1794 he became a full Academician.
In 1814 he was commissioned by the Prince Regent to paint the Allied victors of the Napoleonic Wars. For this he traveled to Vienna and Aix-la-Chapelle (modern Aachen in North Rhein Westphalia, Germany). These portraits form the Waterloo chamber in Windsor Castle and include portraits of Wellington, Prince Metternich, Pope Pius VII, the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, Field Marshal von Blucher, Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh and George IV. He was knighted in 1815 and elected as
(1738-1820) successor as president of the Royal Academy in 1820.
Known chiefly as a portrait painter, Lawrence also painted historical or allegorical subjects but these did not achieve commercial or critical success. Whilst he worked unremittingly (there was a pressing demand for portraits from distinguished persons) he suffered from financial difficulties until his death. That he was an insatiable collector probably contributed to his difficulties. He was also instrumental in aiding Britain to acquire the Elgin Marbles and the collection of John Julius Angerstein, which formed the nucleus of the National Gallery. After his death in 1830 his collection of Old Master drawings, which included works by Michelangelo and Raphael, was offered at a low price first to the King and then the Government but neither took up the offer and the collection was unfortunately dispersed.
His works are represented in the Hermitage, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Gallery.
Birmingham City Art Gallery
Royal Academy London
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