Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 17, 2011
Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, eds. Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance Exh. cat. New Haven and London: Yale Center for British Art, National Portrait Gallery, London, and Yale University Press, 2011. 280 pp.; 160 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780300167184)
Exhibition schedule: National Portrait Gallery, London, October 21, 2010–January 23, 2011; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, February 24–June 5, 2011
Thomas Lawrence. Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby (1790). Oil on canvas. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Edward S. Harkness, 1940 (50.135.5). © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“How various he is!” Thomas Gainsborough’s tribute to Joshua Reynolds applies equally well to their successor in grand-manner portraiture. It is one of the signal achievements of Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance that it removes any lingering traces of the negative stereotype: Lawrence the slick, formulaic sycophant who prostituted his gifts in the service of a decadent Regency elite. In its place this wide-ranging exhibition and thoughtful catalogue substitute a dynamic, probing, and inventive explorer of human psychology—one who is keenly attentive to the interplay of surface and depth, social mask and private self. Even Lawrence’s most public statements create a form of co-extensive space: not by breaking the picture plane, as in Caravaggio for instance, but by drawing the viewer into an electric zone of intimacy.

This force field was both activated and exemplified by the two full-length portraits in the first gallery, Lord Mountstuart (ca. 1793) and Elizabeth Farren (1790). Both sitters, the young aristocrat and the young actress, arrest the viewer’s gaze through performances that blend the theatrical and the sexual. Mountstuart plays the role of Byronic adventurer in storm-tossed Spain, Farren that of alluring nymph in pastoral England. Both flaunt their sexual power—through a flirtatious gaze in the case of Farren, through insistent phallic equipment in the case of Mountstuart, whose bulging genitalia suggest the outline of a pistol thrust into his tight pantaloons. It is no wonder that the critic for the Public Advertiser found Farren “arch, spirited, elegant and engaging,” or that George III “started back with disgust” when he encountered Mountstuart. This clever pairing invited viewers to compare the sublime and the beautiful, the epic and the lyric, male and female forms of swagger. It also drew attention to Lawrence’s precocious technical brilliance: both portraits appear to be works by a seasoned master, not those of a man in his early-to-mid twenties.

The galleries that followed vividly illustrated the multiplicity of Lawrence’s talents and interests. Red and black chalk portraits such as Mary Hamilton (1789) make it clear that he was a superb draftsman, whose touch—both delicate and assured—brings Watteau to mind. Indeed Lawrence was a collector of Old Master drawings, and his gifts as a connoisseur influenced his practices as an artist. The Madonna-and-Child pose of another chalk drawing, Amelia Angerstein and Child (1810), exemplifies that influence as well as revealing Lawrence’s fascination with “the culture of childhood” (Marcia Pointon’s phrase in her ambitious catalogue essay, “‘Charming Little Brats’: Lawrence’s Portraits of Children”). That culture permeates the lively tondo, Laura Anne and Emily Calmady (1823–24), and the pensive full-length Charles William Lambton (1825), “the first ever old master painting to be reproduced on a British postage stamp” (252, n. 1).

The exhibition included several portraits of sitters on the cusp of adulthood or declining into the vale of years. Lawrence creates in Arthur Atherley (1792) a domestic version of the Grand Tour portrait that pays homage simultaneously to Van Dyck and Reynolds: the pose is defined by what Joaneath Spicer has termed “the Renaissance elbow,” a marker of patrician male self-assurance, and the landscape includes Eton College as a prominent cultural marker (Joaneath Spicer, “The Renaissance Elbow,” in A Cultural History of Gesture: From Antiquity to the Present, Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburgh, eds., Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, 84–128). Indeed the picture was originally exhibited as Portrait of an Etonian. Lawrence captures an analogous moment of liminality in the chastely ravishing Rosamund Croker (1827), whose unofficial title might well be Portrait of an Eligible Young Lady. At the other end of the spectrum are the portraits of Queen Charlotte and Lady Manners. Both are masterpieces of pure painting: Lawrence’s handling of the Queen’s diaphanous apron and Lady Manners’s lace handkerchief, for example, shows that nothing was denied him, technically speaking. But technique is the means to an end, a clear-eyed yet empathetic study of human vulnerability. Both monarch and aristocratic are straining to hold themselves together: the Queen in the face of her husband’s illness and the outbreak of the French Revolution, Lady Manners in the face of time itself.

It is women and men in the prime of life, however, who figure most prominently in Lawrence’s oeuvre. Linking almost all of these portraits is a bravura use of impasto, from the furs of Elizabeth Farren to the ruffles of Princess Sophia (1825), as well as an elegant but insistent eroticism. A. Cassandra Albinson address this quality directly in her catalogue essay, “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women,” but Peter Funnell sidesteps it in “Lawrence among Men: Friends, Patrons and the Male Portrait.”

The erotic charge is sometimes conveyed through allusion (the pose of the Venus de’ Medici underlying that of Lady Manners (1826), for example), sometimes through color and texture (the scarlet velvet of lips and costume in George James Welbore Agar-Ellis [1823–24]), but most frequently through what Lawrence’s contemporary Jane Austen called “a glance of brightness.” This phrase, which describes the moment when the heroine of Austen’s Persuasion (1818) recovers her romantic allure, perfectly describes not only Lawrence’s voluptuous women but also his powerful men. In the exhibition’s final gallery, boardroom conjured up bedroom—nowhere more surprisingly and memorably than in Lord Aberdeen (1829–30). Here Velàzquez’s royal portraits are Lawrence’s primary point of reference—but Philip IV of Spain never looked so, in the parlance of 2011, “hot.”

For all its many pleasures, Yale’s version of the exhibition was diminished by sins of omission and commission. It is ironic that one of the most astute sections of the catalogue, “Lawrence in Europe: International Career and Reputation,” should have served to heighten the viewer’s disappointment at the absence of portraits from the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. A forlorn corner gallery, hung with didactic plaques and photographs of Pope Pius VII (1819–20) and Field Marshal Gebhardt von Blücher (1814–15), fell far short of compensating for works so bound up with the theme of Lawrence’s “power and brilliance.” Elsewhere in the exhibition, photographs were also pressed unsuccessfully into service: standing in front of Rosamund Croker, for example, viewers were invited to make comparisons with the sumptuous Lady Peel (1827) in the Frick Collection, yet denied reliable means for doing so.

It is unfortunate as well that the Yale Center for British Art was not in a position to remove the beige linen that covers the walls and dividers of the exhibition space: the color and texture of this fabric diminished rather than heightened the impact of most of Lawrence’s portraits. However, the Center could and should have done something about the shabby condition of the linen: a number of panels bear the all-too-visible stigmata of exhibitions past. Close encounters with breathtaking brushwork, dazzling colors, and sumptuous textures were consistently compromised by signs of wear and tear that Lawrence himself would not have tolerated.

Despite these drawbacks, the exhibition decisively fulfilled the curators’ goal: “to present Thomas Lawrence as an experimental, daring and influential figure, a great painter influenced by great painters. . . rather than a professional hack.” In doing so it completes the process of rehabilitation begun by Kenneth Garlick in his catalogue raisonné (Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings, Oxford: Phaidon, 1989) and continued by Michael Levey in his monograph, Sir Thomas Lawrence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). The perceptive and provocative catalogue of the exhibition now stands with Garlick and Levey as an indispensable resource.

Bruce Redford
Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Boston University