Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Exhibition Review: Thomas Lawrence at National Portrait Gallery

Thomas Lawrence at the National Portrait Gallery until January 2011
Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was the greatest English portrait painter of his generation.  He worked in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and was much acclaimed in his lifetime, but of late has lacked the sort of appreciation which is rightly his due. The new exhibition at the National Potrait Gallery - Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power And Brilliance - exhibition will doubtless help to remedy this.

This is the first exhibition of his work in the UK for over thirty years.  It includes 54 works of very good quality which were drawn from a number of collections including the Royal Collection. the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Palace of Versailles and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The exhibition has been organised by the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven.  It transfers to the Yale Centre in Connecticut in the New Year and the exhibition will run there between 24 February and 5 June 2011

I RECOMMEND this exhibition to all those interested in portraiture - of both adults and children, eighteenth and nineteenth century oil painting and drawing with dry media.

The notion that he was one of the most celebrated artists in Europe is unsurprising when you see the portraits in this exhibition.  Not only are they very fine portraits but they also look incredibly fresh - almost as if they were painted yesterday.

Clearly he had a technique which created portraits with both impact and longevity - of which more later.

I was unsurprised to find out that he had been a child prodigy - and had helped to support his family from an early age through his talent for portrait drawing.  He started his professional career drawing portraits in pastel.

His meteoric rise through the art world began when he was just 21 and exhibited at the Summer Ehibition for the first time.

This is the summary of him which you can find on the National Portrait Gallery website
Artist associated with 641 portraits
Beginning as a child prodigy working in pastels, the gifted Lawrence eventually succeeded Reynolds as Britain's greatest portrait painter, With the temperament and flair to capture the glamour of the age, Lawrence created the image of Regency high-society with dazzling brushwork and an innovative use of colour. His international reputation was ensured when the Prince Regent commissioned portraits of all the foreign leaders involved in the downfall of Napoleon. Lawrence was appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1820.
NPG website: Sir Thomas Lawrence
His portraits were and are notable for a number of things
  • he's completely self-taught.  His approach was informed by his study of and regard for old master drawings - which he also collected. 
  • as a result Lawrence is a superb draughtsman
  • the portrait paintings he submitted to his firste ever Summer exhibition at the Royal Academy succeeded in making Joshua Reynolds's (the President of the RA) 'portraits seem old fashioned.  One of these is the portrait of Elizabeth Farren which you can see at the top of this post. 
  • his particular talent as a portrait painter appears to be for putting his subjects completely at ease so that they appear completely natural and themselves - even those who were not enamoured of portrait painting (such as Queen Charlotte and Wellington)
  • as a result he was patronised by the great and the good
  • he was exceptionally effective as a painter of small children
  • his use of colour is absolutely stunning - he uses vivid colours and in particular a deep red to exceptional effect
  • he's an innovator and experiments constantly - trying different formats and also new approaches to pastel drawing and portrait painting
  • his work is very painterly and he obviously loves the viscosity of oil paint - and includes "great gobs of paint" in the clothes of his sitters
Detail of Queen Charlotte 1744-1818 by Thomas Lawrence (oil on canvas 1789-90)
In his later career he became well known on the continent and exhibited in Paris and travelled across Europe painting those sovereigns, generals and others who were allied to GB in the defeat of Napaolean.  You can see examples below of portraits which normally hang in the very grand Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. 

Windsor Castle - Waterloo Chamber Portraits by Thomas Lawrence
(L to R) Pope Pius VII 1742-1823; Charles, Archdule of Austria (1771-18547)
and Field Marsgall Gebhardt von Blucher (1742-1819)
Royal Collection
His portrait of the Pope is generally recognised to be the best he ever painted.

Section of Pope Pius VII by Thomas Lawrence (oil on canvas 1820)
Another portrait which is of great interest is one of Wellington (see below) - which has not been seen in public for over 60 years.  the significance of this portrait is two-fold.  First it shows Wellington in civilian dress - this is Wellington embarking on a caeer in politics after his retired as a soldier.  His dress shows just a hint of his status as the victor at the Battle of Trafalgar and Britain's greatest military hero - with the red ribbon of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

It is also the portrait which Wellington liked the best.  He sent engravings of it to his friends.

(section of) Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1769-1852
by Thomas Lawrence
Private Collection of Sir Robert Ogden CBE
The drawings in the exhibition are really outstanding and a huge joy to somebody like me who loves looking at well executed drawings.  They deserve a separate post just about the drawings.  Suffice to say at this stage that they will thrill those like me who like to work in dry media.  

 Countess Therese Czernin 1798-1896
by Thomas Lawreence 1819
black, red, brown and white chlak on prepared canvas
Private Collection

Another feature of Lawrence is that he was very innovative - and this exhibition provided me with the first opportunity to see a classic pastel chalk drawing on gessoed canvas and framed like an oil painting.

As you progress through the exhibition you gradually begin to appreciate his use of red for creating very "look at me" portraits and a tremendous coherence to an exhibition of this sort. I would imagine exhibitions including his portraits might very well have had the same impact at the time.

Thomas Lawrence Exhibition - Court, Academy and Society the 1820s
I was puzzled by this and wondered why his paintings look so fresh and which sort of red he has used which continues to look good some 300 years later.  The curator I spoke to confirmed that these these are some of the best looking portraits they've ever had on display and yet there's no or very little evidence of restoration or cleaning.

Also that red was a very popular colour to use at the time - but that undoubtedly it was Lawrence who set the trend.

I'm curious about the red pigment and am trying to get an appointment to see one of the scientists at the NPG to see if it's possible to find out more why these paintings look so good!

Lawrence eventually followed that other great portrait painter Joshua Reynolds in being elected to President of the Royal Academy in 1820.  He helped to establish the status of the artist in nineteenth century England.

The exhibition continues at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd January 2011 prior to its transfer to the USA.  There are a number of events during the course of the exhibition most of which must be booked.

This is a link to the catalogue for the exhibition Thomas Lawrence: Regency Brilliance and Power (Yale Center for British Art)

Other reviews of this exhibition

The reviews are unanimous - it's worth you making an effort to see this exhibition.  You can read some of them by clicking on the links below.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a brilliant review. Instantly made me want to be there with sketchbook in hand. Curious to see what you'll find out about the oils used and in particular - the use of color red


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