At the National Portrait Gallery

Peter Campbell

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.’

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