Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portraits of Miss Bennett, and Mrs Anna Maria Braine, mid 1780s 

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Portraits of Miss Bennett, and Mrs Anna Maria Braine, mid 1780s, Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA
18th Century
With Leggatt Bros., London; With Kennedy Galleries, New York; Parke-Bernet, New York, 7-8th April 1961 (lot 281)
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Thomas Lawrence was a prodigious portraitist from the age of just eight, when he began to draw his first portraits in pencil. His father, a mildly reprobate innkeeper also called Thomas, exploited his son’s self-taught talent for capturing likenesses, and much of Lawrence’s childhood was spent producing small head and shoulder portraits. Little is known about this aspect of the Young Lawrence’s work, but he was clearly talented enough to justify a substantial clientele. Guests at his father’s inn near Bath could have their portrait done by a celebrated local prodigy, hailed as a Mozart of art, and early sitters included the young William Pitt [Private Collection, formerly with Philip Mould Ltd]. Following his father’s bankruptcy in 1780, the family moved to Bath, and relied almost entirely on the portrait commissions of Thomas junior.

It was amongst the large network of Bath’s wealthy connoisseurs that Lawrence first came into contact with the Old Masters, primarily through drawings and prints. We know, for example, that he made copies in pastel of Old Masters, such as Raphael’s Transfiguration (Sothebys, London, 12th March 1987) and Carracci’s Mars (Sothebys, London, 25th February 1998). Most of Lawrence’s early pastel portraits pre-Bath are simple profile likenesses – but by the mid 1780s he was able to attempt more challenging compositions.

The portrait here of Mrs Anna Maria Braine, whose pose must in part be influenced by Raphael’s Madonna of Belvedere (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna) as much as by the contemporary work of Reynolds, shows just how rapidly the self-taught Lawrence evolved into a portraitist of the grand manner. It is hardly surprising that Lawrence soon abandoned pastel, and by 1790 was painting exclusively in oil. While these early examples are notable for

their delicacy and obvious naivety, certain elements of Lawrence’s later talent for capturing likeness can clearly be seen. Here, Anna Maria Braine’s mid 1780s dress is depicted with all the bold fluidity seen in Lawrence’s later oils, as is the dramatically lit background in both pictures. Miss Bennett’s features are sharply drawn, and her pose retains movement and character in what would then have been a challenging pose for the young teenager. It is striking to see that even in these early pastel portraits Lawrence was perfecting the flamboyance seen in his later oil works, and it is perhaps worth noting that the composition of Anna Maria Braine is still repeated in later works such as Julia, Lady Peel (Private Collection USA), dated by Garlick to 1824-5.

The sitters of these two pastels have not been conclusively identified. It has been suggested that Miss Bennett may be related to William Mineard Bennett (1778-1858), the miniature painter who was at one time a pupil of Lawrence in London. A partly legible 19th century inscription on the reverse of Anna Maria Braine suggests that her maiden name was also Bennett, and that the two sitters are thus sisters.
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