Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Midshipman Michael Daintry (d.1853) 

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Portrait of Midshipman Michael Daintry (d.1853), Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA
Oil on canvas
19th Century
31 x 25 inches, 76.3 x 63.5 cm
By family descent; With Arthur Tooth and Sons, London; Lt. Colonel Ian Anderson OBE MC, Old Surrey Hall, East Grinstead; By descent, first in a collection in Canada, then in France.
K. Garlick, Walpole Society catalogue, vol. xxxix, 1964, p. 64. K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence, a Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings, Oxford, 1989, p. 177, no. 233, illustrated.
London, Thomas Agnew and sons, Loan exhibition of pictures by Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A, 1951, no. 38.
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Thomas Lawrence was perhaps the last of the great English portraitists. His depiction of the Regency generation, in all its gauche excessiveness, remains a dazzling highlight of English art, compared to the sobre veneration of his Victorian followers. Although his reputation suffered in the nineteenth century, as English society recoiled from the ‘vulgarity’ of George IV’s reign (George and Lawrence died in the same year), Lawrence’s work continues to be admired for two principle reasons.

The first is his spectacular ability to capture likeness. Walter Scott’s opinion that “next to seeing the great men themselves, nothing can equal beholding them on the canvas of Lawrence…” gives an idea of his eventual reputation as the leading purveyor of likenesses in Europe. The second is his bold, exuberant technique, born out of a supreme confidence in handling oil paint. Lawrence was an instinctive painter, and thus able to capture sudden moments of life and sensitivity in his sitters. It was through this ‘painterly’ approach that Lawrence, following on from earlier eighteenth century English artists such as Reynolds and Romney, came to dominate portrait painting in England, Europe and even America well into the nineteenth century amongst his successors, from Francis Grant to John Singer Sargent.

Lawrence began his portrait practice at the age of just ten, when, for a guinea a go, guests at his father’s inn near Bath could be drawn by a celebrated local prodigy, hailed as a Mozart of art. Sitters included the young William Pitt, drawn in profile in the early 1780s [Private Collection, formerly with Philip Mould Ltd]. Although Lawrence’s first serious portrait commissions were done in pastel, it was not long before he felt able to advance onto oils, a remarkable feat given that he never really bothered with any formal artistic training.

An early success was the well-known portrait of Elizabeth Farren, a famous beauty and mistress of the Earl of Derby [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]. Painted in 1790, when Lawrence was just twenty, it astonished viewers at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition as a work of daring coquettishness, full of movement and vibrancy, and approached with a freshness only possible with innate talent. Another early work, again from 1790, was his first royal commission, a full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte [National Gallery, London]. Despite his own frank admission that Charlotte resembled ‘an old grey parrot’, the work was widely acclaimed. Reynolds, then President of the Academy, reportedly declared, ‘In you, sir, the world will expect to see accomplished what I have failed to achieve.’

According to family tradition, Lawrence painted this portrait of Michael Daintry in 1813, whilst he was staying at the family home, in North Rode, Cheshire. The Daintrys were a wealthy north-west family, with business interests in Macclesfield in the banking and cotton industries. The picture is typical of the works Lawrence produced from mid 1800s through to the 1820s, when he was at the peak of his career, and before he grew dependent on his studio assistants. Here, Lawrence’s rapid brushwork and the dark background combine to present a dramatic composition, which, no doubt intentionally, lends the sitter a maturity and sophistication beyond his years.

Michael Daintry is shown in the uniform of a Midshipman in the Royal Navy, and at the time he sat to Lawrence was about to depart for service. It was common for families to commission portraits of relatives before they left for any distant destination, in this case India, where there was often no guarantee of returning. The present picture is one of few portraits of the Navy’s numerous ‘boy sailors’, and highlights the young age at which it was common to join the Navy. Lord Nelson himself joined the Navy when he was twelve, while the youngest participant at the Battle of Trafalgar was just eight years old. Little is known of Midshipman’s Daintry’s naval career, although the fact that at his death in 1853 he was recorded as being a Captain in the Guards suggests that he was not long in the Navy. He died unmarried, and the family estate passed to his brothers.

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