In his lifetime his reputation was high, but Sir Thomas Lawrence was scarcely buried – with great pomp in the crypt of St Paul’s – before the feeling spread that his work had more brilliance than substance. Victorians, who disliked the morals and manners of the leaders of Regency society, found them reflected in Lawrence’s frequently showy pictures of the men, their wives, their mistresses and their children – legitimate and otherwise. Thackeray, in Vanity Fair (published a couple of decades after Lawrence’s death), shows how taste had turned, and insofar as Lawrence still has a place in the popular imagination it is probably filled by the artist Thackeray dismisses: ‘Bareacres Castle was theirs, too, with all its costly pictures, furniture, and articles of vertu – the magnificent Vandykes; the noble Reynolds pictures; the Lawrence portraits, tawdry and beautiful, and, 30 years ago, deemed as precious as works of real genius.’

‘Pope Pius VII’ (1819-20)

‘Pope Pius VII’ (1819-20)

There is much crimson velvet, and many uniforms spangled with stars and sashes, in the comprehensive exhibition of Lawrence’s work at the National Portrait Gallery (until 23 January), but there are also sober faces and black coats that contrast crisply with white neckcloths and turned up collars to set off the male complexions. There are some tremendous pictures among the things gathered here. Pictures of ‘real genius’? Well ‘genius’ is not an easy word, but certainly vivid, appealing and, sometimes, as in the case of the military or of fashionable ladies, necessarily tawdry.

Lawrence gives you the impression that the achievement of a likeness can be easy, although the complaints of sitters over the years have shown that it rarely is. He has the gentleman’s appearance of effortlessness as defined in fiction of the period: he achieves without seeming to strive. Despite humble origins – his father was an innkeeper – Lawrence became as much a member of, as a servant to, that part of the Regency establishment which supplied his patrons.

Nearly all of the faces in the portraits demonstrate his ability to paint a fresh, direct likeness. ‘Draw’ as much as ‘paint’ because, unusually for an 18th or 19th-century painter, he seems, from accounts given by sitters, to have started with a detailed drawing on the canvas in black chalk. Lady Elizabeth Leveson-Gower thought it ‘almost a sin’ to see it disappear below the paint. He was self-taught and it was drawing, not painting, that brought the child prodigy to the attention of his father’s patrons in the Black Bear, a coaching inn on the London to Bath road. ‘Not merely the wonder of his family but of the times, for his astonishing skill in drawing’, Fanny Burney wrote.

A detail from ‘Mary Hamilton, Later Mary Denham’ (1789)

A detail from ‘Mary Hamilton, Later Mary Denham’ (1789)

The drawings in the exhibition include one of Thomas Holcroft and William Godwin, as spectators at the trial of fellow radical John Thelwall, that shows every sign of being done swiftly, but delicately, on the spot; portraits like that of Mary Hamilton, made in 1789, show his flattering response to pretty women in full, early bloom. A study for Satan as the Fallen Angel shows why Reynolds told him to look to nature for inspiration: the talent his friend Fuseli had for doing the sinister with relish escaped him. In many of the portrait drawings touches of black and red chalk render pale flesh and flushed cheeks with great delicacy. But despite – perhaps because of – their precision they are not marked by a strong, identifiable graphic personality. In pastels, as with the portrait of Elizabeth Carter, Lawrence made the transition to painting, but the drawing of faces, which had been the substance of his early precocity, even when hidden under oil paint, is what puts his sitters so firmly before us. The body allowed him a kind of holiday from close observation (it sometimes went with slightly slipshod anatomy) and the pleasure of freely rendering fabrics and jewellery with a loaded brush. That the face and the rest of the picture were separate undertakings is emphasised by the large number of unfinished pictures (around 200) that were still in his studio when he died. He was a great collector of old master drawings (the masterpieces of others were his masters; the self-taught aren’t really taught by themselves), and he played a significant part in the foundation of the National Gallery.

His entry into the profession was of a kind that no young portrait painter today can expect. Fashionable portrait painting no longer draws big crowds or critical attention – precocious pianists, not to mention photographers, have a better run of it. Moreover, in the late 1700s Lawrence’s skill and dash, displayed when scarcely out of his teens, made him a competitor in a business where judgment was, to a degree, objective. Was he as good as Sir Joshua? How did his children compare with Rubens’s children? Even in portraiture we are now less interested in a painter’s technical ability than in his or her individuality. Skill in the representation of the flesh of cheeks, the curl of lips, the brightness of eyes and the texture of fur, velvet, hair, metal and leather is easy to judge. A couple of hundred years have seen that coinage devalued, but its irrelevance to most modern painting has, if anything, made Lawrence’s achievement more remarkable. A contemporary critic’s comments on the portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren – ‘we never before saw her mind and character upon canvas … arch, careless, spirited, elegant, and engaging’ – are a reminder of how foreign the idea of reading a portrait as one would a character description in a work of fiction has become to us.

The fiction Lawrence’s pictures bring to mind is of an indulgent, romantic kind. Thinking about the Lawrence portraits I had a look at some of Georgette Heyer’s novels. I was pleased to come across: ‘She has perfect features, you know. Yes, yes, that was what Lawrence said, when he painted her likeness! Perfect features.’ It would be tedious to put that in context, beyond saying that the woman in question was of a certain age and extravagantly dressed and made up. The period detail in Heyer’s Regency romances draws on ‘silver fork’ novels of the early 1800s: fiction about aristocratic life and morality, selling in large numbers to an audience that aspired to gentility and enjoyed deprecating the lavishness and licence of the upper classes. It isn’t hard to see why Thackeray’s put-down sticks. (If you want to be sure, look up the description of a visit to Lawrence’s Russell Square studio in Catherine Gore’s Pin Money, published a year after his death.) But the ease which Lawrence gave his sitters, the pretty smiles and red lips, soldiers in regimentals that could indeed have driven silly misses to rash elopements, must be put aside when one considers a portrait like that of Pope Pius VII. Painted in 1819 (it is one of the series commissioned by George IV and usually hangs in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor), it shows a man trapped in his finery. He looks off to his left, and the fluid confidence of the painting of his red cape, white frock and embroidered slippers emphasises what could be a refusal to engage the viewer. The description given of his character by Lucy Peltz in the exhibition catalogue, Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance (Yale, £40) – ‘quiet heroism, tenacious commitment to his mission and a penchant for passive resistance’ – fits what we see. Lawrence and the pope were both pleased with it. I don’t think in this case that one can deny ‘real genius’.

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