How strange that Thomas Lawrence’s romantic and dreamy paintings were on my mind yesterday, when in fact he was born on 13 April 1769. I thought to myself, this must be the voice of art telling me to write about Thomas Lawrence, and that’s exactly what I decided to do.
Thomas Lawrence belongs to ‘the golden age of British portrait painting’; the age of Gainsborough, Reynolds, Beechey and Romney. Although today his paintings may be regarded as too sentimental or too decorative, their romantic flamboyance was all the rage in Georgian London.
He was born in Bristol, the son of a tavern-keeper, and showed his artistic talents early on. His parents considered him a child prodigy and laid all their hopes in him. Fortunately, all their expectations came true. Lawrence’s success was rapid; one moment he was a ten year old boys making drawings and pastels at his father’s tavern, and the other he was a respectable young painter in London. He arrived in London sometime before his eighteenth birthday, in 1787, and settled himself near the studio of Joshua Reynolds who advised the handsome and lively young painter to study nature, and forget the Old masters.
Thomas’ ability to charm and seduce cleared his way to success. Polished manners and kind demeanor, along with obvious artistic skills and individualistic approach, made him popular among young Regency ladies who all wanted to be captured for eternity in Lawrence’s romantic and dazzling style. He happily plunged into the Regency world of aristocracy, fashion, theatre and art. Still, his painting style sometimes proved to be a tad too modern for the audience accustomed to more classical aesthetics. His free brushstrokes, thickly applied paint (especially when painting clothes) and strongly contrasted colours all differed him from the smoothness and feather-light touch of Reynolds or Gainsborough.
As much as for his artistic talents, Lawrence was known for being ‘Always in love and always in debt’. He himself said – ‘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’. Exactly what he spent his money on, and he had a great deal of it, remains a mystery. It is likely, however, that his generous nature compelled him to financially help his friends and relatives, and he did enjoy collecting works of old masters.
Thomas Lawrence led a life of romances, debts and art. He was a charming and flirtatious lad, and although he never married, his name was romantically linked to many beauties of the day. Two sisters, fragile and sickly ladies, Sally and Maria Siddons, the eldest daughters of the famous actress Sarah Siddons, caught his eye in the 1790s. He first fell in love with Sally, then transferred his affections to Maria, then broke with Maria and returned to Sally. But Maria died in 1798 and Sally promised her on her deathbed that she would not see Mr Lawrence again, and she kept her promise until her own death in 1803.
There is a reason why these charmingly beautiful Lawrence’s portraits were on my mind: I’m re-reading my favourite novel by Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility. Since it is set in late 1790s, I can not help imagining Marianne dressed in one of those splendid yet simple white dresses. Thomas Lawrence is the only painter who could capture Marianne’s romantic idealism, vivaciousness and excessive sensibility. In my imagination Marianne would be portrayed with a book in her hand (Shakespeare’s sonnets of Cowper’s poems), with eyes full of ‘life, a spirit, an eagerness which could hardly be seen without delight.‘ May I add that Thomas Lawrence enjoyed reading Jane Austen’s works too, which I find rather strange.
Portrait of Sally Siddons, shown all the way up, is my favourite portrait by Thomas Lawrence. It appeals to me for many reasons. First of all; it portrays his love interest – Sally Siddons which gives it a level of emotional honesty. Secondly, her pose was always very captivating to me; she seems very thoughtful, dreamy and confident at the same time. Thirdly, her dress is painted so beautifully, those gathers captured so exuberantly, especially if you consider that white is the hardest colour to paint. Then there’s that dreamy atmosphere to all of Lawrence’s portraits, a remarkable theatrical sensibility, and a provocative touch. His sitters always seem caught in the moment.