Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance

Past exhibition archive
21 October 2010 - 23 January 2011

Thomas Lawrence was the greatest British portrait painter of his generation and one of the most celebrated artists in Europe in the early decades of the nineteenth century. This exhibition, the first in the UK for over thirty years, presents fifty-four works drawn from international public and private collections, some never before seen in public.

A key figure in the history of British art,the exhibition provides a fresh understanding of Lawrence's career, exploring his astounding technical innovations, dazzling brushwork and bold use of colour through his greatest paintings and drawings.

Stunning early works such as the beautiful full-length painting of actress Elizabeth Farren and the striking Arthur Atherley, are shown alongside majestic and powerful portraits of international statesmen, society figures, military leaders and royalty, created at the height of his fame, such as Pope Pius VII, Princess Sophia and the Earl of Aberdeen.

With thanks to the Thomas Lawrence Exhibition Supporters Group

Additional contribution from Gallery Patrons

Exhibition organised by the National Portrait Gallery, London and Yale Center for British Art, New Haven


Arrival on the Scene: the 1790s

Thomas Lawrence took the London art world by storm at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790. Although virtually unknown, this precocious 21-year-old artist dazzled audiences with his daring full-length portraits of Queen Charlotte and the actress, Elizabeth Farren. Their frankness, vivacity and delight in textures and detail departed from the overblown allegories of ‘Grand Manner’ portraiture. The critics proclaimed Lawrence the rival and successor to Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founding President of the Academy.

Lawrence began his rapid ascent in the art world with his election to the Academy in 1791. His progress was also supported by a network of patrons, including the connoisseur Richard Payne Knight and the financier John Julius Angerstein who became Lawrence’s lifelong friend and advisor.

The paintings seen in this section of the exhibition reveal Lawrence’s range and ambition during the 1790s. The portraits of Arthur Atherley and Robert Jenkinson highlight his skill in characterization and his fascination with youthful masculinity on the brink of maturity.

Delineating a Life: Lawrence as Draughtsman

Lawrence was a talented, prolific and inventive draughtsman. The act of drawing was fundamental to his creativity throughout his career. It was also a sociable pursuit and many of his most evocative drawings record his intimate friendships and provide an insight into an otherwise private man.

Lawrence began as a child-prodigy working in pastel. His debut as a painter did not reduce his interest in drawing. Highly-finished, virtuoso chalk portraits such as those of Charlotte Papendiek or Mary Hamilton, intended to be framed and displayed, were vital to Lawrence’s work and public reputation. Other portraits such as the intriguing joint drawing of his friend Richard Westall or the affectionate image of Amelia Angerstein and her child were made for more personal reasons.

Lawrence’s most innovative technique was his method of using red, black and white chalk on primed canvas. He often drew directly onto the canvas as a preliminary stage to painting. While travelling in Europe, between 1818 and 1820, Lawrence developed this quick and practical approach for fashionable portraits like that of Countess Czernin made in Vienna.

New Ambition: Experimentation in Portraiture

The decade between n 1805 and 1815 was one of Lawrence’s most creative and innovative periods and established his pre-eminence over fellow portrait painters. Beginning with Frances Hawkins and her Son, in these years he explored the challenges of group compositions. This painting and the dramatic group portrait of the banker Sir Francis Baring and his partners were said to put Lawrence ‘at a distance’ from his rivals.

Lawrence sought to push his art into new territory in other ways. John Philip Kemble as Cato was the last and most resolved in a series of what he called his ‘half-history pictures’. These works aimed to combine portraiture with the academically more elevated genre of history painting.

Lawrence in Europe: International Career and Reputation

Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 enabled Lawrence to achieve the greatest international reputation of any British artist. Commissioned by the Prince Regent, Lawrence travelled across Europe painting a series of monumental portraits of the sovereigns and military leaders who were allied in the defeat of Napoleon. These epoch capturing portraits, which hang together in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, ensured Lawrence’s status and influence abroad.

Knighted for his role as the prince’s artistic envoy, Lawrence began the series in London in 1814 and left for the Continent in 1818. In Vienna, he painted Charles, Archduke of Austria, enjoyed the glittering social life of the aristocracy and undertook private commissions such as Selina Meade. Just as he was preparing to return, the prince ordered him to paint the Pope. Lawrence’s year in Rome was the apex of his artistic aspirations and his portrait of Pius VII was the crowning glory of his artistic mission.

In the 1820s Lawrence achieved a growing reputation in France. He stayed in Paris in 1825 and exhibited works such as the famous Charles William Lambton at the Paris Salon. His work particularly influenced the Romantic school of French artists, most notably Eugène Delacroix.

Court, Academy and Society: the 1820s

Lawrence became President of the Royal Academy in March 1820. Two months earlier the Prince Regent had succeeded to the throne as King George IV. He was to become Lawrence’s principal patron in the decade that followed. Lawrence’s other significant connections during this period were with the Tory politicians who governed throughout the 1820s, especially Robert Peel who commissioned an important series of portraits from him. These include the Earl of Aberdeen.

Lawrence complained that his official position took its toll in time and energy. But it allowed him to move in the most powerful circles as never before. Producing the defining image of Regency high society, Lawrence painted leaders of politics and fashion such as George Canning and Lady Londonderry. ‘I have never painted better’, he wrote of his mature style in May 1825.

In his last years Lawrence led a quieter, more private life, surrounded by his work and collections of Old Master drawings and antique casts at his home in Russell Square, Bloomsbury. Painting to the end, he died there on 7 January 1830.


With the temperament and flair to capture the power and brilliance of the age, Thomas Lawrence was the leading portrait painter in Regency Britain. A child prodigy from humble beginnings, he began his meteoric rise through the art world at the start of the 1790s aged just twenty-one.

Lawrence’s life and art is made all the more remarkable by the extraordinary turmoil and political change of the period through which he lived. His career unfolded against the backdrop of the French Revolution and long wars against France which lasted from 1792 until 1815. With peace in Europe came a royal commission to travel across the Continent painting the sovereigns and generals who were allied in the defeat of Napoleon.

Elected President of the Royal Academy on his return from the Continent in 1820, Lawrence was established as the leader of the art world and produced some of his most admired portraits. He died unexpectedly in January 1830 and was honoured with a state funeral reflecting his artistic achievement and influence.


Thomas Lawrence born in Bristol, 13 April.


Lawrence’s father takes over the Black Bear at Devizes, a coaching inn on the road from London to Bath where, from the age of five, Lawrence is encouraged to entertain visitors with recitals from Milton and sketching their likenesses in pencil.


The American colonies declare independence from Britain.


Lawrence’s family moves from Devizes to Bath.


Lawrence is awarded a medal from the Society of Artists for the best copy after the Old Masters.


Lawrence moves to London and takes lodgings at 4 Leicester Square, then in Jermyn Street. He is introduced to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who gives him encouragement and comments on a painted self-portrait. Lawrence is enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools for a few months. He exhibits seven pastels at the Royal Academy but receives no mention by the critics.


Thomas Gainsborough dies.

When King George III is incapacitated by serious mental and physical illness, there is a crisis over the proposed Regency of the Prince of Wales.

Lawrence begins a small history painting, Homer Reciting his Poems, for Richard Payne Knight.


The French Revolution begins.

Lawrence exhibits his first full-length portraits in oil at the Royal Academy exhibition; subsequently he is summoned to Windsor to paint Queen Charlotte, where he befriends Mrs Papendiek. He executes two of the most important drawings in his early career, Mrs Papendiek and Mary Hamilton.


Lawrence receives high critical acclaim and surprises fellow artists with his Royal Academy submission, which includes his much-commented-on full-length paintings of Queen Charlotte and Elizabeth Farren.


Lawrence is named an Associate member of the Royal Academy, despite being technically too young to be elected.


Death of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Lawrence serves in the funeral procession.

He succeeds Reynolds as Painter-in-Ordinary to George III. Exhibits portrait of Arthur Atherley at the Royal Academy.


Along with his friend Richard Westall, Lawrence is elected a full Academician.


Lawrence’s painting of Lord Mountstuart, exhibited at the Royal Academy, is criticised by George III.

Exhibits his last pastel at the Royal Academy.


Both of Lawrence’s parents die.

Completes his major attempt at history painting, Satan Summoning his Legions.


Major French and Italian paintings from the Duke of Orléans’ collection are exhibited in London. Maria Siddons dies, after making Lawrence promise not to marry her sister Sally. The artist’s complicated relations with both women had destabilised his working life for several years.

Lawrence begins his first ‘half-history portrait’ of Kemble as Coriolanus.


The Act of Union creates a single United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Lawrence stays at Blackheath while painting the Princess of Wales and her daughter, Princess Charlotte.


George Romney dies.

A temporary peace between France and Britain (the Peace of Amiens) is negotiated.

Many British artists flock to Paris to see artworks transported there by Napoleon; Lawrence does not have time to leave his work.


Lord Nelson wins a decisive naval victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar.


Lawrence is implicated in the ‘Delicate Investigation’ into alleged impropriety with the Princess of Wales and has to give testimony defending his name against imputations of improper behaviour.

He exhibits Lord Thurlow at the Royal Academy, a painting commissioned by the Princess of Wales, but claimed for the Prince of Wales’s collection.


George, Prince of Wales, is appointed Prince Regent due to the continuing illness of his father.


Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is published.

Lawrence moves to a newly built house in Russell Square, which is adapted for him by Robert Smirke Junior.


Lawrence paints his first portrait of George, Prince Regent.

The abdication of Napoleon and the Hundred Days lead to a temporary peace.

The Prince Regent commissions Lawrence to paint the allied leaders who had conquered Napoleon.

He paints the Emperor of Russia, King of Prussia, Count Blücher and Count Platov on their visit to London.


Napoleon escapes from Elba and briefly regains power; the Battle of Waterloo marks the definitive end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Lawrence visits Paris briefly to see artworks looted by Napoleon.

He finishes his portrait of Isabella Wolff and exhibits it at the Royal Academy, along with a full-length portrait of the Duke of Wellington.

He is granted a knighthood in recognition of his mission to Europe to paint the allied leaders for the Prince Regent.


Lawrence travels to Aix-la-Chapelle in September at the invitation of Charles Vane-Stewart, and finally begins the commission to the paint the allied leaders who conquered Napoleon.

In November he moves with Vane-Stewart from Aix-la-Chapelle to Vienna where he continues to paint key leaders but also mixes in high society and executes a number of portraits of society and political figures.


Lawrence receives an unexpected request from the Prince Regent to extend his journey and travel to Rome to paint Pope Pius VII. He moves from Vienna to Rome at the end of April. Spends much social time with the Duchess of Devonshire.


Queen Caroline endures a public ‘trial’ in the House of Lords to judge the grounds for divorce. Lawrence returns to England in March, to find that on the death of Benjamin West, he has been elected President of the Royal Academy.


Coronation of King George IV.

1822 and 1823

Lawrence makes bulk purchases of Old Master drawings, augmenting and enhancing his collection.


Lawrence delivers his Presidential Address to the Students of the Royal Academy in which he calls Reynolds’s Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse ‘indisputably the finest female portrait in the world’.


The first passenger railway in England opens.

Lawrence travels to Paris to paint King Charles X.

Delacroix visits Lawrence’s London studio.


The first photograph is taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

Lawrence is awarded the Légion d’honneur.


Lawrence sends paintings to the Paris Salon. The portrait of Charles William Lambton receives a passionate response.


Lawrence dies at Russell Square, London, on 7 January. George IV dies on 26 June.