Born in 1769, Thomas
Lawrence was a child prodigy, a self-taught savant whose formal
schooling consisted of two years of attending classes between
the ages of six and eight. His father ran an inn in Bristol, but
took over the Black Bear Inn in Devizes, a popular stop on the
London-to-Bath coaching route, when his own business failed. Travelers
would often be asked if they wanted their portraits drawn by the
precocious little boy. By age ten, “Tommy” was already
being written about in the press.
When his father failed again at business, the family moved to
Bath, and from then on, Lawrence supported them with his artistic
talents. The charge for a pastel portrait was three guineas, and
his sitters included, the Duchess of Devonshire, Sarah Siddons
and Sir Elijah Impey. By all accounts, Lawrence was a handsome,
charming, modest young man, and popular with his patrons.
In 1787, when he was still seventeen, Lawrence moved to London
and set up a studio at 41 Jermyn Street. He had several works
in the Royal Academy exhibit of that year, and six the following
year, including one oil painting—a medium he quickly mastered.
By 1789, his works were garnering favorable acclaim, with one
critic calling him "the Sir Joshua of futurity not far off."
(A reference to Sir Joshua Reynolds.) At age twenty he received
his first Royal commission, and journeyed to Windsor castle in
order to paint the portraits of Queen Charlotte (who did not like
the finished work) and Princess Amelia.
On the death of Reynolds in 1792, Lawrence was appointed “painter-in-ordinary
to his majesty” by George III, and in 1794, he was made
a full member of the Royal Academy For the next 30 years, he would
reign as the premier portrait painter of his day, and captured
the likenesses of many of the leading luminaries of the Regency.
his friend, Lord Charles Stewart, Lawrence became acquainted with
the Prince Regent, who became one of his most important patrons.
A major commission in 1814 involved doing portraits of some of
the top Allied leaders, including Wellington, Von Blucher and
Count Platov. Much pleased with the work, Prinny rewarded Lawrence
with a knighthood in 1815.
The plan called for him to go abroad and do portraits of some
of the leading foreign rulers, but Napoleon’s escape from
Elba put that project on hold. However, in 1818, he headed off
to Europe where he spent nearly two years traveling and painting
the likenesses of such notables as Tsar Alexander, Emperor Francis
I of Austria, and the King of Prussia. (These portraits became
part of the Waterloo Room at Windsor Castle.)
On his return to London in 1820, he was elected the President
of the Royal Academy, a position he held until his death in 1830.
His output remained prolific throughout the next decade and his
depiction of children during this time is recognized as particularly
In contrast to the great success of his professional career, Lawrence’s
personal life was fraught with disappointment. He was romantically
entangled with the two daughters of Sarah Siddons, with his affections
shifting from one to the other, and back again. The affairs ended
unhappily, and both women died young. Later in his career, Lawrence
was linked with Isabella Wolff, whom he had painted in 1803, but
he never married.
were also a source of trouble. Though he earned a fortune in commissions,
he was constantly in debt—though his biographers are puzzled
as to where all his mony went. Lawrence himself claimed, “I
have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money.
Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor
secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it
from me.” And most people agree. It’s thought that
his great generosity to his family, and his magnificent—but
expensive—collection of Old Master drawings ate up most
of his earnings.