April marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest portrait painters in British history. Historian Catherine Pitt explores the life of Sir Thomas Lawrence, a child prodigy whose formative years as an artist were nurtured in Bath

Sir Thomas Lawrence’s meteoric rise to success in the art world was a result of his own natural talent, and his pushy parents. Born in Bristol, Lawrence grew up in Devizes, Wiltshire, where his father was landlord of The Bear, a coaching inn on the London to Bath road.

A precocious prodigy, Lawrence’s talent was not just in art. He had an aptitude for memorising poems and excerpts of plays, which did not go unnoticed by those who lodged at The Bear. Lawrence’s father pushed his son to perform at all opportunities.

Portrait in oils of Irish actress Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby, before 1791. Image from Wikimedia Commons/Metropolitan Museum of Art

Until the 18th century, portrait painting in Britain had been dominated by artists from the Low Countries and Germany. Now home-grown talent was emerging, and a new type of portrait, the conversation piece, was realised. In these pictures the subject was surrounded by representations of their home or idealised landscapes. When Lawrence was born it was Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) who led the field. Lawrence was adept at sketching from around the age of four, and producing saleable work at age six. In their memoirs the actor David Garrick and the diarist Fanny Burney record their meetings with Lawrence and his talents at The Bear.

The few surviving early portraits produced by Lawrence show that he started off working in graphite pencil, drawing quick, small-scale head and shoulder profiles. Before moving to Bath, Lawrence was taken by his family on what could be termed a promotional art tour to Oxford and London. At this point he had advanced to drawing in pastel crayons.

In London Lawrence met the great portrait painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who is recorded as having pronounced Lawrence as his successor. “He (Reynolds) declared Lawrence the most promising genius he had ever met with,” according to Fanny Burney in 1780.

Initially Lawrence favoured being an actor rather than an artist. Family and friends persuaded him otherwise, recognising that although talented in memory and good looks his drawing skills surpassed his acting abilities.

In 1779 Lawrence’s father was declared bankrupt and this forced the tour and the move to Bath. His family recognised that this popular city, filled with the wealthy and fashionable of society, would give Lawrence ample opportunity to show off his talent and make some money. By 1782 the Lawrence family were settled in the city, first renting lodgings at St James’ Parade.

The Prince Regent, later George IV, 1822. Image from Wikimedia Commons/Tokyo Fuji Art Museum

In the 18th century, artists would create a separate studio in their own homes, and a gallery where the public could browse and discuss the work displayed. The artist Thomas Gainsborough initially had a home and studio in York Street, but later, as his success grew, he moved to The Circus where his rich patrons could easily visit. Between 1700 and 1800 Bath saw more than 150 artists moving to and working in the city.

Early newspapers from this period give small glimpses into the start of Lawrence’s early career. On moving to Bath his father took out an advert offering his own skills to teach writing, with a brief mention at the end about Lawrence and his “striking sketches of likeness.” Later the adverts were just about his son, the artist. By the age of 13 Lawrence had become the main breadwinner for the family.

In Bath Lawrence worked mainly in pastels, which were quick and cheap to use. The phenomenon of such a young artist intrigued the fashionable set and he would often be inundated with requests from those wanting to view his work or commission a picture. Soon Lawrence was receiving up to four sitters a day and finishing three or four portraits a week. He would spend half an hour with the sitter, then half an hour immediately afterwards sketching from memory.

Initially Lawrence’s parents were charging 1 guinea per portrait (just two years earlier it had been 2s. 6d per picture), the equivalent of £90 today. As demand increased, this soon tripled to three guineas, a huge sum. When Gainsborough was in Bath (1759–1774) he was charging five guineas for a head painted in oils. By the time Lawrence left the city five years later, aged 17, he too was charging five guineas, but this was for a pastel portrait.

The fascination with Lawrence’s youth, beauty and talent opened many doors for him in the city. Many of Bath’s upper class residents such as Mary Hartley, Dr Falconer, and the Honorable Mr Hamilton became his patrons and allowed him to study their private art collections. This was a huge opportunity for a self-taught artist. Lawrence also made the most of similar offers from local landed gentry, such as the Methuen family of Corsham Court, nearby in Wiltshire.

Some of Lawrence’s patrons wished to send him to Italy to study the Renaissance masters; others, such as Lady Frances Harpur, offered to adopt him. His father turned all these offers down, stating his son’s talents “required no cultivation,” but perhaps this was as the family feared losing their main source of income.

In 1784 the Lawrence family moved to Alfred House at 2 Alfred Street, in close proximity to the Upper Assembly Rooms. Lawrence would often attend balls there, returning home to sketch from memory any person that may have caught his eye that night. The rent at Alfred Street was £120 a year, a huge amount for a lower middle-class family. It was possible, though, with the money Lawrence’s work brought, as well as rent from a lodger, and money from the eldest son who was now minister of St Michael’s Without, Broad Street.

One of Lawrence’s most popular portraits from his time in Bath was that of the great local actress Sarah Siddons. His portrait of her as Zara in The Mourning Bride was turned into an etching and copies sold to
the public.

Sketch of Arthur Atherley by Thomas Lawrence, 1791. © Holburne Museum

The Duchess of Devonshire was another of Lawrence’s famous sitters and she later described how unnerving it could be being scrutinised by him for a portrait. To ensure accuracy Lawrence, unlike other painters, would get so close to his sitters that they could feel his breath on their faces.

It is thought that during Lawrence’s time in Bath, and under the guidance of his mentor, the artist William Hoare (1707–1792), that he first began to paint in oils. Once Lawrence moved to London in 1787, he exclusively painted in that medium.

Alan Cunningham, Lawrence’s contemporary biographer, described how Lawrence always painted standing up with the light to his left. If a sitter could only make one or two appointments, he would use a life-size mannequin as a guide for the figure. On occasion he even suggested what outfit a client should wear. In a first sitting Lawrence would draw in detail the head on canvas, tracing all dimensions and expressions. In the second sitting he would then actually begin to paint. These sittings for oil paintings would last around three hours and often eight or nine sittings were required.

On many occasions the gap between sittings and the final portrait could be long, but perhaps not quite as long as the portrait of Lady Mexborough with her baby son. Years after their sitting Lord Mexborough contacted Lawrence for receipt of the actual portrait. Lawrence wrote back saying he would oblige if mother and child would sit once more for him. Lord Mexborough agreed regarding his wife but explained that it may be difficult for the child as he was now an officer in the Guards.

Lawrence never signed any of his portraits. However his predilection, from the age of 12, for sticking handwritten care guidelines, such as “be pleas’d to keep this from the damp and sun” on the back of his work meant art historians are able to identify his pictures.

Even as a youth the demand for his portraits exceeded production. At his death in 1830, over 200 unfinished portraits were discovered in his studio. Lawrence’s career had seen him rise from the public rooms of The Bear, via the social whirl and opportunities given to him in his years in Bath, to finally the pinnacle of his career in London. Knight of the realm, portrait painter to King George IV, and President of the Royal Academy, Lawrence was feted both at home and abroad.

Despite all these accolades Lawrence died in debt. He was so revered as an artist that he was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral; his funeral procession fittingly sketched by fellow artist and child prodigy J.M.W. Turner.

Featured image: Sally Siddons, Sarah Siddons’ eldest daughter, 1795. Image from Wikimedia Commons/Sotheby’s