Last Thursday I visited Sir Thomas Lawrence, Regency Power and Brilliance, currently on at the National Portrait Gallery. With the snow bringing the country to a freezing standstill, this is likely to be my last exhibition of 2010, but a good show to end the year with.
Lawrence's is a rags to riches story. Born to a Bristol tavern keeper, Lawrence showed a precocious skill for drawing, and eventually rose to the position of PRA, President of the Royal Academy. His Self-Portrait of 1788, executed about the time he came to London and met Reynolds, indicates tension and self-consciousness; he may be on the brink of a magnificent career, but the prospect seems to make the artist uneasy. Half turning away from the viewer whilst looking out of the picture, the work is a study in ambivalence; the wide saucer eyes may convey the arrogance of a young talented painter, but to me they seem full of dread.
It's said that Lawrence belonged to the "Golden Age" of British portrait painting; the period of Gainsborough and Reynolds, who eclipsed him. Lawrence, though equally as skilled as those two English purveyors of the painted face, never quite received the acclaim he was due, at least in England. Lawrence was feted in the USA and France; in the latter country he earned the respect of none other than the romantic painter Delacroix, who according to Richard Holmes in his essay on Lawrence, said that the artist knew how to paint women's eyes; he also was praised by the critic/poet Baudelaire, who set him at odds with the neo-classical school of Ingres and David. I can see why the Americans would like him: he conveys a kind of idealized Englishness; his ravishing women look like they've strayed from a BBC costume drama. This beautiful portrait of Lady Selina Meade (1819), the daughter of an Irish peer, is a good example of the Jane Austen effect, incidentally, one of Lawrence's favourite authors.
Though Lawrence's fortunes may have vacillated on the oils front, his reputation as a draughtsman has never been in doubt, at least with scholars and connoisseurs. He had a wonderful collection of old masters from which to learn, which may explain his enigmatic debt despite his financial success. One of the delights of this exhibition is Lawrence's drawing of Mary Hamilton (1789), which is a graphic work worthy of Watteau and Rubens. Those two masters used coloured chalks, a technique that Lawrence easily mastered too. Rubens, Watteau, Lawrence! This is one of the finest works in the show; you marvel at how he manages the red and black chalks so that they work in unison. I like the way the red shading eases into the black hatching; and the red spots on the woman's cheeks capture a blush, either a real emotion of the sitter, or a detail imagined by the painter.
Lawrence painted many of the movers and shakers of his day, from the Prince-Regent to aristocrats and bankers. His revealing group portrait (1806-7) of the merchant banker, Francis Baring and his partners, is one of the best dissections of high finance in western art. Baring sits in an ornate chair which seems to have been borrowed from a renaissance papal portrait; he holds a document in his hand, possibly another renaissance- inspired motif. The banker cups his ear due to deafness, but the action seems almost nervous, like a tic, suggesting pathology as much as financial decision making. The painting reminds me of Walter Benjamin's comment in his book on Baudelaire; the 19th century financier hid his nervous reactions under a slack, almost phlegmatic expression. As Benjamin put it, "the face of an elegant man must always have something convulsive and distorted." Through this portrait of wealth runs an undercurrent of nervousness. On the table lies a huge ledger which one man hovers over like an angel with the book of the dead at the Last Judgement. The paper dangling from Baring's hand bears the inscription "Hope & Co", the name of an Amsterdam bank that did business with Baring. A judgment was coming in the future; little did Baring know that it would be a Dutch bank that would purchase his bank for the nominal sum of £1 in 1995, due to Baring's collapse brought about by rogue trader Nick Leeson. Maybe that stormy sky portends something in the future that none of these financial soothsayers could forecast. I would sub-title this "The Physiognomy of the Banker."
Lawrence described himself as "Genius…infected by Romance, and Wasted by Indolence and Languor." That seems a good epitaph for this remarkable painter whose art of celebrity conceals tragic depths of self-doubt. Holmes says that Lawrence believed that he had betrayed his own genius in relinquishing a project of Milton's Satan. Lawrence wanted to be a history painter, but fate decreed otherwise. It may be significant that none of Lawrence's history paintings are present, unless you count the oversize portraits of soldiers and generals like Blücher, which try for the heroic look. These are an acquired taste; I get the feeling that Lawrence could do them in his sleep, though there's no denying their quality. Interestingly, when Lawrence tried for the big history painting, the results weren't impressive, so maybe genius wasn't betrayed after all. His Milton's Satan summoning the Legions –not in the show- may aspire to the romantic gold standard of a James Barry, but it's cheap coinage, an awkward academic essay based on the antique. Within the exhibition, a chalk drawing of Satan as a Fallen Angel is more successful; history painting only works in Lawrence when it is scaled down and intimate, but that surely disqualifies it as history painting, doesn't it? Still, the presence of the Miltonic theme suggests Lawrence's desire to be associated with painters like Barry and George Romney who likened themselves to the rebel Lucifer, a symbol of romantic aspiration, and ultimately personal and artistic failure. Like them, Lawrence was cast into outer darkness by the arbiters of fashion, and had to suffer exclusion and ignominy until time and taste deemed him worthy of re-admittance to the canon. That time has now come.