Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A Study of Two Heads of Children 

George Henry Harlow 

A Study of Two Heads of Children, George Henry Harlow
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
22 ¼ inch diameter, 56.5 cm
Private Collection, New York, USA
Of the generation of British painters who received their apprenticeship in the studio of Sir Thomas Lawrence, George Henry Harlow, who entered the studio in 1802 was the most talented. Joseph Farington, Lawrence’s close friend, noted in his diary that ‘Lawrence has got a young pupil of 15 years of age, who draws, Lane says, better than He does. His name is Harlow’.

However, Harlow’s impetuous and conceited character was at odds with Lawrence’s more relaxed countenance, and his career in the studio was short-lived. In this at least he was not unique, and a number of men who trained under Lawrence, painters such as William Etty and Samuel Lane, found the experience less than rewarding. Lane’s description of being in the studio records the frustration of an eager young painter not trusted with any work of interest or importance: ‘When I apply for something to work upon, He sometimes walks about uncertain what to give me, & at last puts into my hand a three quarter portrait, desiring me to paint to it a plain background which I can do in three quarters of an hour, & I am then again witht. employ.’

Incomprehensible as this process may have seemed to the student, for the master it made good sense; for each pupil entrusted to his care Lawrence (more often than not in financial straits) received one hundred guineas. Although the experience of working under Lawrence may have been unsatisfying in the short-term, its effects on Harlow’s manner are appreciable. This portrait shows the clear influence – indeed, at first it was the total domination – of Lawrence’s manner on Harlow’s technique.

And yet, by the date of this study Harlow had developed his own distinctive style, and had begun to be seen as no less an imitator of Lawrence than any other artist of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Here, for example, the colours are much bolder than those found in Lawrence’s work, and look forward to the highly pitched tomes of the mid-nineteenth century. Soon, Harlow began to establish a select clientele, and was especially noted for his theatrical paintings exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy. He even embarked on the traditional artistic grand tour to Italy. However, on his return in 1819 he developed a throat infection, and died alone at his house in Soho at the age of thirty-two. Lawrence, amongst others, lamented his lost “genius” – “So rare as is the appearance of great power in Art,” he wrote to Farington, “one must wonder … that it is given to the World so suddenly to be withdrawn.”

Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.