Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self Portrait 1781

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Self Portrait, Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA
Pastel on paper
18th Century
10 x 8 inches 25.5 x 20.3 cm (sight)
Private Collection
Sir Thomas Lawrence, Kenneth Garlick, Phaidon Press 1989, p10 (ill.)
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Thomas Lawrence's career began in a manner not unlike a story updated from Vasari. His father was an Innkeeper, successively in Bristol and then Devizes, on the London to Bath road. It would seem that the young Lawrence impressed visitors with his precocious talents, and at about the age of ten was praised by Fanny Burney, who remarked on ''the lovely boy... not merely the wonder of the family but of the times for his astonishing skill in drawing.''

Mr Lawrence senior's enterprise failed in Devizes as it had in Bristol, and -via Oxford, where Lawrence conntinued to impress with his talents and to received commissions from the principal figures of the university- the family moved to Bath. By the early 1780s Lawrence was working in pastel, and had placed his operation on a more professional footing. It is recorded that he charged three guineas a head, ''at that time, and for Bath, a very extraordinary sum'' (Williams).

Equally importantly, perhaps, it was in Bath that he first made the acquaintance of collectors and connoisseurs and -like Gainsborough before him- encountered the paintings of the Old Masters. This experience was as crucial to Lawrence's development as a painter as his artistic and financial precocity. He made an intense study of the pictures, drawings and prints in the keeping of those who wished to sponsor his talent. In 1784 he received the greater silver palette, gilt, and five guineas from the Society of Arts in London for a copy of Raphael's Transfiguration.

This present self-portrait, one of only a handful which show the sitter as a child, all dating to the early 1780s, is, therefore, a remarkable glimpse of Lawrence at a formative moment in his career. It is not without hints of advertisement in its self-consciously sophisticated handling of the format; the subject curves around the shape of the oval, rather than being fixed solidly in place towards the lower half of the composition as in the case of many contemporaries'' works. As in a similar example at the Vyne in Hampshire, Lawrence is holding a drawn portrait. Here it is a profile of a man, in the Vyne portrait a woman. Whether these represent King George III and Queen Charlotte, as has been suggested, is unclear and perhaps unimportant. They are portraits, and as such they must proclaim his trade -and Lawrence never practised in any other branch of painting- just as the whole underlines the remarkable abilities of the boy whom Reynolds had earlier described as ''the most promising genius he had ever met with.''
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