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January 12, 2011

Genius and Scandal - Regency England: Thomas Lawrence, Regency Power & Brilliance at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Thomas Lawrence, Regency Power & Brilliance
National Portrait Gallery, London
21 October 2010 – 23 January 2011
Daily 10am - 6pm (Thursdays & Fridays until 9pm)

Thomas Lawrence was the outstanding British portrait painter of the Regency era and came to enjoy a truly international reputation. In contrast to the grand portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lawrence provided a new romantic naturalism with a daring use of colour and an ability to capture or impose an inner feeling emerging from the face.

At the age of twenty he was commissioned to paint Queen Charlotte, in an era when George III lost his mind and Louis XVI his head. Lawrence's Queen Charlotte, 1789-90, is truly regal but also a woman saddened and worn down by cares and trouble. Her world had lost its promise and she looks wistfully away towards the autumnal Windsor. She is the autumn queen. The Queen hated her portrait but it brought Lawrence fame when exhibited at the Royal Academy as did his full length portrait of Elizabeth Farren, 1790.

Farren was an attractive actress best known for playing Miss Tittup in David Garrick's farce Bon Ton or High Life above Stairs (shortly to become a BBC comedy series). Her other claim to fame was that Charles James Fox was besotted with her up to the time when she played a "breeches part", often an eighteenth century device for displaying shapely female thighs and buttocks on the stage, free of the all enveloping dresses of the time - rather like the woman who plays "The Principle Boy" in Pantomime. By stage convention men who dress as women on stage are comically gauche and ponderous and sometimes of repellent mien as with the Ugly Sisters, the Widow Twankey, Charlie's Aunt from Brazil or Falstaff as the old aunt from Brentwood.

By contrast women dressed as men can be sex objects. Unfortunately Elizabeth Farren's bum did not meet Fox's expectations and he ceased to be enamoured of her. Reasoning a posteriori and following Dr Johnson, we can see that Fox had a good sense of bottom and was fundamentally sound. At the age of thirty-eight, Farren married within days of his first wife's death the Earl of Derby, another Whig.

Fortunately, there is no hint of the dimensions of her nether parts in Garrick's portrait and indeed he takes great care with her long garments, contrasting the very textures of smooth white cloth and hairy fawn fur. Behind her are the colours of the English countryside and sky, so different from the narrow boards of the artificial theatre. She looks round at us across her shoulder with a deliberate directness, alluring and attracting, cheeky and cozening. She is a more beautiful version of the young Princess Diana. The romantic stance of Lawrence's portraits is best contrasted with James Gillray's caricatures of exactly the same people.

The very tall Elizabeth Farren is to be seen in Gillray's Contemplations on a Coronet and even better is his A peep at Christies'; or - tally ho and his Nimeny-pimmeny taking the morning lounge, 1796.

In the latter she towers over her future and probably, in all senses, anticipated husband, the Earl of Derby (Tally-ho) who is represented as a well-paunched dwarf. Even his face is that of a dwarf with bulging forehead and poking chin separated by a concave face. He looks at the pictures at floor level while she, elegant as a flagpole but hidden by bustling flowing robes, uses her great height to look at the high hung pictures using opera glasses and presumably also uses them to look down at the top of Derby's hat. One is irresistibly reminded of our own tiny giftsverbe John Bercow, so heavily mocked by the cruel David Cameron, and Bercow's exquisitely beautiful, long-legged, high-busted, tall wife, Sally or indeed of the enormous Arriana Stassinopoulos with that genius Bernard Levin, whose mental stature greatly exceeded his physical.

In fairness Sally Bercow (Keble) is not an ignorant actress but a woman of learning, who like Mrs Gandhi (Somerville), dropped out of Oxford early without taking a degree. It must be quite difficult to fail at Oxford.

It is well-known that by 1935 no fewer than thirty-four ladies of the stage had managed to ensnare a peer. It was the trading of beauty for status so well analysed by the Taiwan econometrician Jung-fu Chang. In addition, as actresses, they knew how to behave like a Lady accurately and consistently. As the butler said: "She will be able to act her part to give every satisfaction, my lord". All this we can see in Lawrence and Gillray's depictions of Elizabeth Farren, the daughter of a drunken Irish apothecary. There was no danger that she would lapse into a Cork brogue or fling inebriated curses at her Chancellor of Lancaster husband's cabinet colleagues.

The comparison of Lawrence and Gillray also fits Queen Charlotte. Lawrence's version is long forgotten but who can forget Gillray's The Introduction, 1791, Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal, 1792, and Anti-Saccharrites, 1792, with their ludicrous, toothy-grinning portrayals of Charlotte.

Lawrence had talent but Gillray had genius. The same may be said of Lawrence's portrait of the jowly classicist and deist, Richard Payne Knight, 1794.

Knight is best remembered today for his scholarly demonstration that the Elgin marbles were Roman not Greek and dated from the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. Perhaps we should put the marbles back in place high up on Hadrian's Wall, out in the open as the Romans intended. In his own time Knight's fame rested on his book The Worship of Priapus, a eulogy of those ancient phallic cults whose images were far more explicit than any Shiva lingam. Tantric-ha, Tantric-ha, Tantric-ha sang the chorus of peers. In The Charm of Virtu-or-A Cognoscenti discovering the beauties of an antique Terminus, 1794, Gillray portrays Knight looking through a powerful magnifying glass at the enormous erect membrum virile of a little bronze statuette. The statue is perhaps 2% of the size of Michelangelo's David but its member, its part, looks considerably larger when buttressed by Knight's scholarly thumb.

Knight, a Greek scholar also commissioned Lawrence to paint Homer Reciting his Poems, 1790. We see a wild white haired, wild white bearded, dotard in a coarse cassock, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Rowan Williams, clutching a lyre and reciting something or other, while the crowd, both men and women, both clad and unclad, chat among themselves. One bald and bearded old boy is falling asleep; a listener to Homer nods.

Lawrence was obsessed with the greater prestige given to painters of grand historical scenes over mere portrait painters, even though he was hopeless at the former and famous as the latter. In Protestant Britain there were no religious orders to commission paintings of their founding saints seeing visions of the Virgin Mary with a halo like the European Union's flag. In constitutional Britain there was no royal absolutism to be celebrated on vaulted ceilings. Commissions were by individuals, for individuals and of individuals, as when Sir Robert Peel asked Lawrence to paint the individual members of his cabinet, the famous Peelers.

The defeat of Napoleon gave Lawrence a great chance to paint the generals and the heads of state who had overthrown the Corsican monster, when they came to London to celebrate the Allies' triumph in 1814. The heroic Field Marshal Gebhardt von Blücher, 1814-15, who had chased and defeated Napoleon from Leipzig to Paris, stands beneath a black storm cloud, his right arm held high pointing the way to victory. But for Blücher, Napoleon might have won at Waterloo in 1815, so it is appropriate that the Field Marshal's portrait now hangs in the Waterloo Gallery at Windsor Castle. Why don't we rename our Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station Leipzig or even Sedan in honour of these doughty Prussians? The Dortmund-Doncaster express could be renamed The Charging Blücher.

After Waterloo Lawrence was sent on an official tour to paint the allied leaders. At the request of the Prince Regent (later George IV) he extended his visit to go to Rome to paint Pope Pius VII, 1819-20. Persecuted and imprisoned by Napoleon, befriended by the British, Pius agreed to have his portrait painted by a Protestant artist for a Protestant king. It is Lawrence's greatest achievement, a fitting addition to a tradition that includes Raphael's Julius II, 1511-12, Titian's Paul III, 1543 and Velázquez's Innocent X, 1650. He is their equal in his use of colour and in combining the grandeur of the office and the character of the man, in this case the frail, pious and resolute Pius VII, a survivor. Here Thomas Lawrence both records history and earns his own place in it; what does it matter that he was never a historical painter as he had wished.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.

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