2. Lawrence at work

For Thomas Lawrence, each portrait was a challenge, despite his technical facility. He could write home from Rome in 1819 of the ‘NERVOUS DIFFICULTIES OF THE TASK’ in painting portraits (Williams 1831, vol.2, p.470). He claimed to be 'as much the slave of the picture I am painting, as if it had living, personal existence, and chained me to it.' (Williams, vol.2, p.52). Lawrence’s complete engagement with the portrait in hand, and his reluctance to leave a work until he was fully satisfied, are characteristics which run through his career.

Our understanding of Lawrence’s working practices comes from three sources, his own testimony, that of his sitters and fellow artists, and the evidence of the portraits themselves. This study relies primarily on the first two sources, rather than on technical examination. Lawrence did not keep accounts or papers, according to D.E. Williams, his official biographer (Williams 1831, vol.1, p.viii). However, the prodigious number of letters that he wrote and the detailed notes of conversations that Joseph Farington recorded in his diaries, mean that in some ways Lawrence’s painting process is relatively well documented.

A child prodigy, Lawrence was largely self-taught, drawing small-scale head-and-shoulders profiles in pencil of his father’s guests at his inn at Devizes and then graduating to portraits in pastel at Bath from 1780. He began painting seriously in oils in 1786 at the age of 17, and the following year he moved to London. It would seem probable that Lawrence received some guidance in both pastel and oil from William Hoare when living in Bath (Garlick 1989 p.12) and he also received advice from Hoare’s son, Prince Hoare in London when visiting in 1786 (Williams 1831, vol.1, p.82). He began exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1787, and then spent a few months as a student of oil painting in the Royal Academy Schools, enrolling on 13 September 1787. His exceptional talent for drawing was immediately noticed, as his contemporary, Henry Howard, later the Academy’s Secretary noted, ‘His proficiency in drawing, even at that time, was such as to leave all his competitors in the antique school far behind him’ (Williams 1831, vol.1, p.99).

Painting a portrait

Lawrence had a particular procedure in painting portraits. According to Allan Cunningham, his early biographer, Lawrence always painted standing. ‘His constant practice was to begin by making a drawing of the head full size on canvass; carefully tracing dimensions and expression. This took up one day’ (Cunningham 1833 pp.194-5). At the next sitting, Lawrence would begin to paint the head.

Lawrence often kept his sitters for three hours at a time and generally required eight or nine sittings, according to Cunningham (Cunningham 1833 p.194). But many sessions were shorter. In 1803, in the face of mounting debts, Lawrence claimed, ‘I have now four and five sitters in a day and have no choice without absolutely affronting them between receiving them and finishing other pictures’ (Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1954, p.10), while his friend, Elizabeth Croft, wrote of him admitting ‘four sitters for two hours each in bright summer days’, stating that he painted from sunrise to sunset, except for correcting engravings and for hurried meals (Layard 1906 p.246). When painting at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, Lawrence noted that the average length of his sittings was two hours and that his sitters, ‘the three greatest monarchs in recent political importance’, had sat to him six or seven times (Williams 1831, vol.2, pp.119-20).

Let us examine the process in more detail. Drawing was fundamental to his art. Joseph Farington has left an account in his diary of sitting to his friend in May 1794, ‘This morning I sat to Lawrence when he drew in my portrait with black chalk on the canvass, which employed him near 2 hours. He did not use colour today. This is his mode of beginning.’ (Farington, vol.1 p.187). This account is echoed by another artist, John James Audubon, who on visiting Lawrence in his studio in 1826 saw upon his easel ‘a canvas…, on which was a perfect drawing in black chalk, beautifully finished, of a nobleman’ (Robert Buchanan (ed.), Life and Adventures of Audubon the Naturalist, 1868, p.118). Lawrence's pupil, Richard Evans, in conversation in 1838 with the American artist, Thomas Sully, described how Lawrence 'often made careful drawings in black chalk, heightened the lights with white chalk, would sometimes add a few touches of red, and even tint the eyes and hair the proper colour – and over the preparation make his dead color!!!!' (Albinson in Lawrence 2010 pp.131-2).

Lawrence himself confirmed his preference to begin in this way in a letter of advice to Lord Malden in 1790, ‘I should think it always better that the picture, whatever it is, be first accurately drawn on the canvas, because tho’ it may be afterwards affaced by the colors yet it seems to impress the object on the memory & the mind naturally follows the path it has trod in before’ (Royal Academy Archive, LAW/1/32). An example of such a drawing on canvas is Lawrence’s William Sotheby, c.1807 (fig.7). Others are mentioned below.

William Wilberforce by Thomas Lawrence, 1828 (National Portrait Gallery)

Fig.5. William Wilberforce
by Thomas Lawrence, 1828
(National Portrait Gallery).
Click on image to view larger version

At the second sitting, Lawrence ‘began to paint; touching in the brows, the nose, the eyes, and the mouth, and finally the bounding line in succession’ (Cunningham 1833 pp.194-5). The portrait, William Wilberforce, begun in 1828 (fig.5), shows one of his painting after two sittings, or at most three. It was standard practice among portrait painters to begin with the head.

To achieve his desired effect, Lawrence would on occasion suggest to his sitters what they should wear. He requested Joseph Farington to put on a blue coat for his portrait in 1794 (Layard 1906 pp.23-4). Lawrence’s control extended to the accessories. He painted out the blue, red and white stripes on the sash worn by the Duke of Wellington, finding them harmful visually, leading the Duke to remark, ‘never mind, they merely constitute me Generalissimo of the Armies of Spain’ (Layard 1906 p.287). When painting a portrait of Robert Peel's daughter in 1828, he told his patron that he thought it probable that the dog he had selected for the portrait would be ‘better suited to my purpose’ (Williams 1831, vol.2, p.489). At Lawrence’s death, various of his sitters’ robes and decorations remained in his studio for the completion of portraits: the sword Wellington wore at Waterloo, Lord Combermere’s military belt, Lord Hertford’s Garter star and various of George IV’s foreign decorations (Michael Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, exh.cat., National Portrait Gallery, 1979, pp.11-12).

Lady Callcott by Thomas Lawrence, 1819 (National Portrait Gallery).

Fig.6. Lady Callcott
by Thomas Lawrence, 1819
(National Portrait Gallery).
Click on image to view larger version

On rare occasions, Lawrence would dash off a portrait at a single sitting. His Lady Callcott (fig.6) was painted in Rome in 1819, ‘the work of two hours’ and, it would seem, never intended to be taken further (Walker 1985 p.89; see also Lady Eastlake, ‘Memoir of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake’, Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts, 1870, p.94). For another artist, Charles Robert Leslie, the most beautiful of Lawrence’s female heads was that of Lady Elizabeth Leveson Gower, afterwards Marchioness of Westminster, which was ‘begun and finished off-hand’ (C.R. Leslie, Handbook for Young Painters, 1855, p.306).

The role of drawing

Lawrence used his remarkable skills as a portrait draughtsman in a variety of ways: to produce finished portraits on paper as works of art in themselves, to make drawings on paper as studies towards his more ambitious portraits and to make large-scale drawings on canvas as under-drawing for his painted portraits and even as finished works.

What follows focuses on this last category, what Farington described as Lawrence’s ‘mode of beginning’, which entailed making a painstaking drawing directly on canvas as a first step in the painting process. In this respect, his extreme attention to careful preparatory drawing was unusual when compared to the practice of, say, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough or George Romney, three leading artists of the previous generation, who tended to restrict such portrait drawings as they may have made to separate compositional studies.

Most of Lawrence's canvas drawings appear to have been made with the intention of turning them into finished portraits by painting over the drawing at a subsequent sitting. An example of a drawing begun in this way in 1823 is, it seems, that of the Calmady Sisters, size 29 ½ x 24 ½ ins (Bearne’s, Exeter, 3-4 July 2001 lot 286), which was inscribed by their mother, Emily Calmady in 1844, ‘This was the sketch to be painted over but was given to me on my regretting that such a drawing was to be lost under paint forever’. In the event the drawing was not used since Lawrence decided to vary the position of the elder girl in the finished painting, the Calmady Children (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

There was a group of 19 ‘Large Drawings, from the life, on canvas’ in Lawrence’s studio sale in 1830. Quite a number of such drawings are known but they have been little studied until recently. While a full understanding must wait on a wider examination, it is possible to make some suggestions about their varying nature and purpose.

William Sotheby, by Thomas Lawrence, c.1807 (National Portrait Gallery)

Fig.7. William Sotheby
by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1807
(National Portrait Gallery).
Click on image to view larger version

Clearly, many were intended as the first step towards a finished painting, as contemporary descriptions, quoted above, would lead one to believe. The primary focus of such drawings was generally on the portrait likeness of the head rather than the wider composition. Examples include William Lock the Younger, c.1795-1800 (Yale Center for British Art repr. Lawrence 2010 p.156), William Sotheby, c.1807 (fig.7) and, somewhat more painterly, Mrs George Stratton, c.1810 (Birmingham Museum and Gallery, repr. Michael Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 2006, p.159). They were not taken further either because sittings were discontinued or, as Cunningham claimed, ‘Lawrence sometimes, nay often, laid aside the first drawing and painted on a copy’, from his fear of losing the invaluable benefit of first impressions (Cunningham 1833 p.195). It is worth noting that Lawrence would sometimes make very similar large-scale drawings on paper when not working in his own studio, whether taking royal portraits such as that of George IV (see Michael Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence 1769-1830, exh.cat., National Portrait Gallery, 1979, p.109) or on occasion on his continental travels.

It has also been suggested that some of Lawrence’s drawings on canvas were kept in the studio as models to enable him to meet the demand for portraits of celebrated sitters such as George IV and the Duke of Wellington. However, there is no contemporary evidence to support this thesis, although in the case of Lawrence's canvas drawing, The Duke of Wellington, c.1820 or before (National Portrait Gallery), an early owner, probably Sir Henry Russell writing in 1842, claimed that Lawrence used it to paint all his subsequent pictures of the Duke (Walker 1985 p.527).

Some canvas drawings may have been intended as finished works in themselves, including Dorothea Lieven, c.1818 (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), Countess Czernin, 1819 (Private coll.) and Andrew Bloxham and Richard Rowland Bloxham, 1824 (Manny Davidson Family) (all repr. Lawrence 2010 pp.132, 168, 177). It is possible that Lawrence developed this approach as a result of his continental travels, 1818-20, as a convenient and relatively speedy way of achieving a finished likeness (see Albinson in Lawrence 2010 p.133). What characterises such drawings is their relative degree of finish, their completeness and the way they occupy the full space of the canvas, features that distinguish them from his working drawings of heads discussed above.

Catching a likeness

According to David Wilkie, who knew Lawrence reasonably well, ‘his picture and his sitter were placed at a distance from the point of view; where, to see both at a time, he had to traverse all across the room, before the conception which the view of his sitter suggested, could be proceeded with’, adding that his incessant pacing to and fro wore a path through the carpet, ‘each traverse allowing time for invention’ (Allan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, vol.3, 1843, p.173).

 Lawrence aimed at seizing the expression rather than merely copying his sitter’s features. For this purpose Lawrence wanted his sitters to be animated rather than in repose. As a young man painting Queen Charlotte’s portrait in 1789, Lawrence tried unsuccessfully to get her to talk with her daughters so as to enliven her countenance (Mrs V. Delves Broughton (ed.), Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte: being the journals of Mrs. Papendiek, vol.2, 1887, p.134). With the celebrated Irish lawyer, John Philpot Curran, who sat in 1800, the artist found it hard to catch a satisfactory likeness until Curran spoke out at the end of the sitting. ‘I never saw you till now,’ Lawrence said, ‘you have sat to me in a mask; do give me a sitting of Curran the orator’ (Cunningham 1833 p.194). This is a recurring theme. ‘The youngest is so much more lively and animated,’ Lawrence told Mrs Pattison in 1811 when explaining the positioning of her two sons in their portrait, William and Jacob Pattison, also telling her that the older boy, William, ‘must be taken talking’ (Hardie 1904 pp.265-6; the portrait is at Polesden Lacy, National Trust).

Lawrence has left a revealing account of his efforts to capture the likeness of the Emperor Alexander I of Russia at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 (Layard 1906 p.140; the portrait is in the Royal Collection). The emperor ‘sat admirably, keeping his head and very frequently his eye in the exact direction that I pointed out’, Lawrence wrote. All the while, the Emperor was engaged in an animated conversation with his attendant. Lawrence continued, ‘You know how long it is before one gets under weigh in Painting – before the Pencil can mould the Color into shape, before that shape has general accuracy of form, before truth of Hue and Tone is united to it, and then the fleeting moment of Expression given. These were golden minutes to me, and I happily succeeded; whilst the Emperor seemed to forget the time in mixed indulgence to me, and enthusiasm on his subject’.

For Lawrence, likeness was also about capturing a sitter in a characteristic pose. The Emperor Alexander’s aide-de-camps ‘put themselves into postures to show me how he stands, not gracefully (as they say), but he stands so…’ (Layard 1906 p.140). The poet, Robert Southey, told how Lawrence seized on his admission that his cross-legged pose with hands on one knee and under the other was a way he sometimes sat: Lawrence responded with great satisfaction, ‘Then I will have it!’ (Cunningham 1833 p.238).

Studio arrangements

Lawrence always painted with the light on his left, and usually from high up on the left, as Williams, his early biographer, tells us. ‘In his painting-room in Russel Square, the light was high, but in that at 57, Greek Street, it was higher than artists usually paint from, for it was introduced from the second story by the removal of the floor’ (Williams 1831 vol.1, p.151). In Russell Square, he seems to have achieved his high light source through the arrangement of his window shutters (see fig.3).

Lawrence would work after dark when under pressure, as he told Farington in 1815, ‘My professional exertions have been very unremitting since your departure from Town… I have painted more by lamp light than I have done for many years’ (Layard 1906 p.99). That this was not the first time that Lawrence had resorted to lamplight is confirmed by an anonymous obituarist, writing in 1831, 'We have known him whilst residing in Jermyn Street, and subsequently in Old Bond Street, to paint by the overpowering blaze of a large screen reflecting several Argand lamps, from nine or ten at night until three, four or five in the morning' (‘Desultory Recollections of the Late Sir Thomas Lawrence', Library of the Fine Arts, vol.2, 1831, p.182). On 2 March 1804, with the deadline for the Royal Academy exhibition looming, Sarah Siddons sat to Lawrence by lamplight until two o’clock in the morning for her whole-length portrait (Tate). This was not the only occasion that he needed such sittings with friends (see Farington, vol.5, p.1761, vol.6, p.2258, vol.11, p.4078).

Lawrence’s studio equipment seems to have been maintained by his servant (in 1814, Lawrence referred to Edward Holman, ‘and all his luxury of oils, varnishes, colors’, as quoted above). John James Audubon in his description of his studio visit in 1826 recalled, ‘I saw that his pallet was enormous, and looked as if already prepared with the various tints wanted by some one else, and that he had an almost innumerable number of brushes and pencils of all descriptions’. Lawrence’s painting equipment can be seen in Emily Calmady’s view of his painting room in 1824 (fig.3). His sitter chair belongs to the Royal Academy. Elizabeth Croft makes a passing reference to ‘the chair on the throne where his sitters were placed’ (Layard 1906 p.264) but otherwise we know little about the precise arrangements.

The young American portrait painter, Thomas Sully, in London in 1809, recollected Lawrence as painting ‘his common sized portraits in a broad flat frame painted yellow. This… helps to determine what will be the effect of the picture when framed’ (William Dunlap, History of the rise and progress of the arts of design in the United States, New York, 1834, vol.1, p.126). This was not common practice among portrait painters at the time. A single framed painting can be seen in the only known view of Lawrence’s studio (fig.3). It may not have been Lawrence’s usual method since it went unrecorded by other artist visitors to his studio including Farington, Audubon and Wilkie.

With rare exceptions, such as portraits of the King or Queen and other royalty, and trips to Arundel Castle to paint the Duke of Norfolk in 1798 and to Stratton Park for his Baring triple portrait in 1806 (Farington, vol.3, p.1029, vol.8, p.2851), Lawrence insisted that his sitters should come to his studio where he could control the lighting arrangements to his satisfaction and where he had full access to his painting equipment. The notable departure from his established practice came, of course, when painting portraits on the Continent after Waterloo. The practical difficulties he then faced are apparent from his correspondence.

Lawrence employed help in producing the many copies of the king’s portrait required for overseas embassies in his role as Painter to the King, and he would use assistants or pupils to work on other portraits. Following Lawrence's death, an anonymous obituarist described how, when the head of a portrait had been completed and the figure drawn in, Lawrence would give the picture 'to some one of his pupils, who filled in the drapery and background. It was then returned to Sir Thomas, who, with a very few touches, rectified any little error, and gave to the whole a uniform effect.' (The Annual Biography and Obituary for the year 1830, vol.15, 1831, p.308, accessed through Google Book Search). It is not possible to be sure how much weight to give to this report without knowing the identity of the obituarist. But it gains some credence from Lawrence’s executor, Archibald Keightley, who explained when responding to a complainant in 1830, ‘Sir Thomas in common with all eminent artists in that branch of painting avowedly and invariably used the assistance of others in completing the minor parts of his pictures. The original design, the head and the sketching of the figure were his own, if a pupil performed any part of the rest it was no breach of contract but consistent with a known and necessary custom.’ (Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1954, p.18).

Early in his career in 1790, Lawrence sought the address of the drapery painter, Roth, from Joshua Reynolds (Layard 1906 p.16). This was apparently William Roth (b.1754), son of the better-known George Roth. Over the years, Lawrence took on various pupils and assistants including Thomas Hargreaves (1774-1847) of Liverpool in 1793, Samuel Lane (1780-1859) in 1800, George Henry Harlow (1787-1819) in 1802, William Etty (1787-1849) in 1807, John Simpson (1782-1847), Richard Evans (1784-1871), Henry Wyatt (1794-1840) and Frank Howard (1805-66) at various dates, and Richard Rothwell (1800-68) in 1829 (Garlick 1989 p.25, see also Layard 1906 p.22).

When Farington visited Lawrence in 1804, he noted how people crowded upon the artist for their portraits and how his rooms were filled with pictures begun, and he went upstairs to see Samuel Lane, his former pupil and now Lawrence’s assistant, who showed him several portraits which he had been painting (Farington, vol.6, p.2404). But Lawrence was not always very good at using his assistants effectively, whether for lack of organisation or because he preferred to reserve critical parts of his portraits to himself. In 1806, Lane complained to Farington, ‘I go on badly with Mr. Lawrence. He does not employ me in a regular way and I lose much time in consequence of his being undetermined how to employ me’ (Farington, vol.7, p.2751). Years later, it was said that, far from relying on studio assistants, ‘he himself finished all the pieces on which his fame depends, with most laborious and honest patience, to the minutest touch of a drapery’ (Cunningham 1833 p.270).

Finishing a portrait

We can gain some idea of how long a portrait took to complete from Lawrence’s own estimates in 1807, presented to Joseph Farington who was scrutinising his financial affairs (Layard 1906 p.53). A so-called ‘threequarters’ (30 x 25ins) might take in all about 4 ½ days, a Kit-cat portrait (36 x 28ins) 5 ½ days, a half length (50 x 40ins) seven days and a whole length (98 x 54ins) three weeks. But this analysis belies the difficulties that Lawrence sometimes had in completing his work to his own satisfaction. The resulting delays led to countless exchanges with his patrons, who usually made half payment in advance and then found it difficult to understand why they sometimes had to wait years, even many years, for their portraits to be completed, if indeed they were ever completed. ‘It is of course my wish to have my picture completed,’ wrote Lord Downe in 1817, ‘as my unavailing applications for these last eight years must have convinced you’ (Layard 1906 p.120).

Lawrence left some 200 unfinished portraits at his death. ‘His principal room was crowded with portraits in all stages of study,’ according to Allan Cunningham, ‘some had the brows, and eyes, and nose, and mouth touched in; others had the shoulders rudely added; while a third class exhibited the head exquisitely finished… At one time I saw the heads of Scott, Campbell, West, Fuseli, all awaiting their turn to be exalted upon shoulders; hundreds more seemed in the same plight…’ (Cunningham 1833 p.201). It has been said that Lawrence’s habit of putting in the heads of his portraits at once but leaving them floating in the midst of a blank canvas made it difficult for him to recall the exact effect he had originally intended when he later brought them out to finish (Cunningham 1833 pp.269-70).

‘Few but artists are acquainted with the difficulties of making up a picture after what is usually considered the most arduous part is finished’, Lawrence told a patron in 1813 (Hardie 1904 p.268). Finishing a portrait posed particular challenges for Lawrence. As a friend and mentor, Farington was able to put it to Lawrence in 1798 that when his energies were not aroused by a particular subject, he was not ‘equal to himself’ (Farington, vol.3, p.1035). Somewhat in the same vein, Benjamin West identified that the annual Royal Academy exhibitions were necessary as a challenge to Lawrence’s progress. It has been said that Lawrence found it difficult to continue with some portraits which had been begun in a fit of enthusiasm. He was a perfectionist, as he himself acknowledged. He claimed to be 'the slave of the picture I am painting', adding, 'How often in the progress of a picture, have I said, "Well, I’ll do no more", and after laying down my palette and pencils, and washing my hands, whilst wiping them dry I have seen the "little more," that has made me instantly take them up again.’ (Williams 1831, vol.2, p.52).

Lawrence would sometimes use a lay-figure, that is a life-size mannequin, to complete the costumes in his paintings. At an early date, he possessed a 'fine Layman', which had once belonged to Sir Joshua Reynolds and was given him in 1794 by Reynolds's niece, Lady Inchiquin (Farington, vol.1, p.148). According to Elizabeth Croft, Lawrence wrote to Paris for ‘a lady and gentleman’ when he heard tell from her of a lay-figure she had seen at the house of a female artist in Brussels, perhaps in 1815 (Layard 1906 p.263). Subsequently, as she recounts in detail, he commissioned her to dress a female lay-figure as the Duchess of Gloucester to help him complete a portrait.

Elizabeth Croft also records how she sometimes posed for Lawrence to help him in finishing his pictures, including sitting for Mrs Wolff’s satin drapery in 1814 or 1815, and for the Duchess of Gloucester’s hands and arms, perhaps in preparation for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1817 (Layard 1906 pp.246, 266). Others played a similar role on occasion. In 1789 Mrs Papendie, Queen Charlotte’s Assistant Keeper of the Wardrobe, had sat for the jewellery in Lawrence’s portrait of the Queen (National Gallery), while in 1803 Farington sat for one of the hands in Lawrence’s Lord Thurlow (Royal Coll.; see Mrs V. Delves Broughton (ed.), Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte: being the journals of Mrs. Papendiek, vol.2, 1887, p.142; Farington, vol.4, p.2007).

For some artists signing a portrait was a mark of completion and an advertisement. This was not the case with Lawrence. He rarely signed his oil portraits, as he himself acknowledged to Mrs Calmady in 1824, referring to his Calmady Children (Metropolitan Museum of Art), which he had initialled on the ribbon at centre. ‘You are quite right about the initials. I believe five pictures would include all on which I have written them.’ (Williams 1831, vol.2, p.342; see also Albinson in Lawrence 2010 p.254). Lawrence signed one version of his portrait of his close friend, Charles Stewart, later 3rd Marquess of Londonderry (National Portrait Gallery), along the edge of the cloak: ‘THOs. LAWRENCE. PINXt./ 1812’.

Following Lawrence’s death in 1830, we can document the role that three of his former assistants or pupils played in finishing his work, readying it to deliver to those who had commissioned portraits (V&A National Art Library, MSL/1938/1922, estate expenditure records). Richard Evans and John Simpson received considerable sums. Among other work, Evans completed or copied several portraits of the King as well as completing a portrait of the Bishop of Durham for £52.10s, while Simpson finished portraits of the Bishop of Raphoe for £10.10s and of W. Nowell, a full-length described as nearly finished in the executor’s claim book, for £52.10s. Samuel Lane undertook rather less work but completed a portrait of George IV for £42. Although Frederick Richard Say (1805-60) is sometimes credited with completing Lawrence’s work, his name does not appear among those receiving payment from Lawrence’s executor.

For the King, William Seguier (1772-1843), Surveyor of Pictures, prepared Lawrence’s portraits of European leaders for the Waterloo Gallery at Windsor Castle in 1830, finishing the backgrounds and working up the hands and dress in some portraits and cleaning and varnishing others, generally at £4.4s a canvas (Millar 1969 pp.xxxv, 62-78). The dealer and picture restorer, Thomas Boden Brown (c.1790-1875), claimed that for the last ten years of Lawrence’s life he had cleaned and repaired his pictures (evidence to the 1853 Select Committee on the National Gallery), a report which receives some confirmation from payments apparently to him from the Lawrence estate in 1831 (V&A National Art Library, MSL/1938/1922: £7.10s to ‘Mr Brown’, 3 February, for cleaning and repairing pictures; £8.9s.6d to ‘T. Brown’, 2 April).

Advice on preservation and display

Throughout his life, Lawrence was unusually concerned about what would happen to his portraits when they left his studio. At the age of 12 he was already providing advice on the preservation of his work, as can be seen from the labels in his own handwriting on the backing papers of his early pastel portraits. These inscriptions can be found between 1782 and 1787, generally in the form, ‘be pleas’d to keep this from the Sun & Damp’, as variously found on Sir Elijah Impey and Warren Hastings, both 1786 (both National Portrait Gallery, see fig.8). Variations include: ‘Be pleased to keep this away from the Damp and from the Dust’ on his Portrait of a Young Officer, 1783 (Phillips 17 April 2000 lot 196), 'to be kept from the Damp & sun and must not be shook' on his Portrait of a Gentleman, 1784 (Sotheby's 3 April 1996 lot 53) and 'To be kept from the Sun and the Damp and to be hung with the front of the face towards the Light’ on his Maria Linley (Dulwich Picture Gallery, see John Ingamells, Dulwich Picture Gallery: British, 2009, p.140).

Be pleas’d to keep this from the damp & from the Sun. Lawrence’s instructions, detail from the backing paper of his pastel, Warren Hastings, 1786 (National Portrait Gallery)

Fig.8. Be pleas’d to keep this from the damp & from the Sun.
Lawrence’s instructions, detail from the backing paper of his pastel, Warren Hastings, 1786
(National Portrait Gallery).
Click on image to view larger version

Much later, in 1817, when sending the Pattisons the double portrait of their sons in oils, William and Jacob Pattison (Polesden Lacy, National Trust), Lawrence begged ‘that the Picture may be only slightly brush’d with the lightest Furniture Brush’ (Hardie 1904 p.271). In general, oil paintings were more robust than pastels and Lawrence’s main concerns about the display of his oils focused on lighting, discussed here, varnishing, discussed below, and framing, treated in a separate note, Thomas Lawrence and picture framing.

In an interesting letter to his patron, George Augustus Lee, perhaps dating to 1809 (Phillips 18 March 1993 lot 55), Lawrence recommended that his picture should be lit from the spectator’s left, explaining that otherwise false shadows would be projected from the touches of colour left by the paintbrush if the portrait were to be hung in any other light than that in which it had been painted. He again recommended a left light when writing to another patron, perhaps Lord Dudley, concerning a portrait of George Canning in 1827 (National Portrait Gallery Archive) and he wrote in similar terms to Benjamin Gott the following year on the completion of his portrait and that of his wife: ‘The most advantageous light for them is indisputably that which comes from the left of the Spectator. You will remember that it is the light in which they were painted by me; and as the artist adapts his touch… to its effects on the canvas a false light or shadow will fall upon it if the picture be placed in an opposite light, to that in which it was finished’. Lawrence’s interest even extended to lighting his portraits to best advantage in the evening, recommending Gott to use lamplight from the left, rather than a chandelier (Hugh Honour, ‘Sir Thomas Lawrence and Benjamin Gott’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no.25, 1954, p.17).

Lawrence would occasionally advance other thoughts on the showing of his work, whether regretting to Benjamin Gott how his portraits ‘must share the common fate of Pictures, and be thrown into twilight by Silk and Muslin Curtains’, or advising the Baltimore collector, Robert Gilmor, in 1820, to avoid certain background colours, explaining that ‘a light blue, grey or drab-colored ground is the most unfavourable for pictures’ (Thomas Sully, Hints to Young Painters, Philadelphia, 1873, p.52). Fastidious as ever, Lawrence delayed supplying his great patron, Robert Peel, with an impression of a new print of his portrait of the King in 1829, for want of the right glass, the colour of which, he told Peel, had been 'of too green or cold a hue', but adding that the print’s frame was that in which he had presented the engraving to the King for his inspection (Williams 1831, vol.2, pp.499-500).

Ideas on copyright

Lawrence’s sense of control of the processes by which his portraits would be seen extended to the engraving of his work. ‘The artist ought to have… the right of choosing the engraver, and of directing the work,’ he told his fellow portrait painter, Henry William Pickersgill in 1826 (Cunningham 1833 p.205; see also The Builder, vol.25, 1867, p.483). Lawrence had a modern view of copyright, ‘I fully acknowledge and assert the right of every artist to remuneration for that use of his labours which is intended to be the source of profit to others, although the picture itself may have passed from his possession.’ This was not a viewpoint to which his biographer, Allan Cunningham, subscribed, seeing the purchaser as becoming the sole proprietor of a work (Cunningham 1833 p.205). For Lawrence in his later years, the right to engrave his work was a source of considerable income.

Competition at the Royal Academy

Before considering Lawrence’s materials and processes in more detail, it may be helpful to consider what effects he was trying to achieve in his pictures.

Lawrence normally used a canvas with a white or off-white ground. In providing advice on painting in 1790 to the amateur artist, Lady Malden, he explained, ‘I always endeavour to paint a picture as light as possible even at first colouring’, adding, ‘Now when an artist endeavours to paint bright at first, the next time he comes he will try to make it still more and so on, till by this struggle with himself he will at last gain a degree of brilliancy as unexpected as it must be gratifying…’ (Royal Academy Archive, LAW/1/32, partly transcribed in Layard 1906 pp.15-16). Even at this early stage in his career, Lawrence was aiming at a high tone in his portraits. Lawrence continued to emphasise the importance of white in paintings. ‘Of all the great colourists, [Lawrence] preferred, he said, those who pronounced their white in a positive manner…’ (Cunningham 1833 p.266). His use of white was sometimes criticised and he was on occasion accused of making his faces too chalky (Layard 1906 p.24).

The artist Henry Howard, thought that early in his career Lawrence was inclined ‘to carry his taste for the colouring of the old masters a little too far’, what he described as ‘a depth and richness of tone more readily to be found in Titian, and the best Italian colourists’. This style, Lawrence ‘gradually quitted…, and imitated closely the freshness of his models as he found them; striving to give his works the utmost brilliancy and vigour of which his materials were capable.’ (Williams, 1831, vol.1, pp.366, 370).

The question of tone is a dominant theme in reactions to Lawrence’s work by his contemporaries. The American portrait painter, Thomas Sully, in London in 1809, found English taste ‘in favour of strong effects, and brilliant colouring’, in particular finding Lawrence’s pictures ‘too much loaded with paint, and the red and yellow overpowering’ (Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and his American Students, 1981, p.154). In 1821, the art critic of the London Chronicle called Lawrence’s full-length, Lord Londonderry, ‘too pinky & gay, as if he had just put on a new skin, as well as new robes’ (Whitley 1930 p.7, quoting London Chronicle, 8 May 1821), while Lawrence’s biographer, D.E. Williams, described his celebrated Calmady Children, 1823-4 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) as 'too painted and fine – all positive and no neutral colours – even the shadows of the neck and arms are of purple, as if reflected from jewellery or painted glass’ (Williams 1831, vol.2, p.335).

At an earlier stage in his career in 1798, Lawrence admitted to Joseph Farington that his pictures ‘had too much of a metallic appearance, too many shining lights’ (Farington, vol.3, p.1035). The following year he agonised over his full-length Miss Jennings, listening carefully to advice from Farington, who thought that some of the flesh tones were too cold and purply, while the whole was too pinky. Lawrence then placed it in a frame at Farington’s suggestion and discussed the niceties in the lighting and colour balance with him, before making further changes. The impact that the picture had on completion is apparent from the reaction of the Academy's president, Benjamin West, that its arrival at the exhibition caused great alarm among portrait painters, since it made 'all the other portraits of women look like dowdies' (Farington, vol.4, pp.1175, 1184, 1188, 1208-9).

Hanging at the annual Royal Academy exhibition was a competitive affair, where the tone of a picture was important to its effect. ‘The public eye’, wrote a critic of the 1820 exhibition, ‘is diverted by the glare of the half-lengths and the whole-lengths, from the modest pictures clad in sober hues which peep out amongst them’ (quoted by Marcia Pointon, in David Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line, 2001, p.103).

In his earlier years, Lawrence was particularly sensitive about the display of his pictures at the Royal Academy. In 1806, Farington reported how anxious Lawrence was about the arrangements, preferring his circular picture to be surrounded by others ‘low in tone’, so that his own picture should stand out better (Farington, vol.7, p.2717). It was said that Lawrence's anxieties about the pictures placed next to his never ceased, and that a change in the hang one year had made him violent thinking that another artist's picture was prejudicial to one of his own (Farington, vol.7, pp.2724, 2738).

But other artists could take exception to the way that Lawrence behaved so much so that in 1799 it was claimed that he painted colossal figures to obtain the central position in the main room, by which other portraits suffered, and in 1814 that he was 'rapacious to obtain the best situations' (Farington, vol.4, p.1188, vol.13, p.4482).

3. Lawrence's materials and processes
Introduction (for works cited in brief)