Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Robertson of Chilcote 1816

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Portrait of William Robertson of Chilcote, Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA
Oil on canvas
19th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
Commissioned by the sitter''s brother Francis Robertson; Family descent; Christie''s London June 17th 1907 (lot 74); Collection of Fra^ois Flameng (1856 - 1923); His sale Galerie Georges Petit, Paris May 26th 1919 (lot 28); Galerie Charpentier, Paris December 15th 1951 (lot 55); Hotel Drouot, Paris November 9th 1988; European Private Collection to 2002.
Letters from Sir Thomas Lawrence to Francis Robertson, the sitter''s brother, both dated 1816 (National Art Library Victoria and Albert Museum Special Collection 86AAH); Butler Burlington Magazine January 1957 n.; C. Saunier La Collection Francois Flameng''m Les Arts 1968 n.165 p.9; Kenneth Garlick Sir Thomas Lawrence: a complete catalogue of the oil paintings Oxford 1989 n.683
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The Robertson family was known to Lawrence before the date of this portrait, since over a decade previously he had painted the sitter's sister-in-law, then a Miss Ross (Tate Gallery, London). The correspondence between painter and sitter is preserved in a remarkable album in Victoria and Albert Museum, formerly in the possession of the Robertson family. In addition to poems addresses to Miss Ross, there is a lengthy but exquisitely courteous battle between painter and sitter over the appearance over her painting. Financial considerations are not absent. The generally undated letters, which date from f.1801 1803, cover a period in which Lawrence's ambitions for his practice did not keep pace with his income.

One letter in the exchange dances around the knotty question of invoicing:
Dear Miss Ross,
Let me entrust you with a confidential secret and this in the form of a question. Does Mr Ross or the Gentleman whom I saw the other Day when I first began the picture pay for it / shall be very glad at this moment to add so much to my Banker's account but the only way in which I can learn whether it would be convenient or not is through you on whom I have a complete dependence for the sincerity of the answer and for the ingenuity & delicacy that is necessary to ascertain the fact. I shall not complain of your Father or of your Friend if they don''t pay me these five years and for the best of reasons because I have no right to do so.

The reason for including this letter at any length is to illustrate the precarious state of Lawrence's finances at this point it is remarkably forward to question a sitter who has not commissioned the work as to who will pay for it but to introduce both the circumstances of the jobbing portraitist and the person who over a decade later would commission the present portrait.

Francis Robertson, ''the Gentleman whom I saw the other Day'', was at that time the fiancee, and later the husband, of Miss Ross. By 1815 he had also commissioned the present portrait of his brother William. In the same collection as the letters and poems from Lawrence to Miss Ross are two letters from the painter to Mr Robertson regarding this second commission, in the first of which Lawrence gratefully acknowledges receipt of an advance cheque for half of his price. In the second, dated independently to 1816, Lawrence announces that the portrait is completed.

Clearly by 1815, the nature of Lawrence's practice had changed considerably: Lawrence was acknowledged to be at the head of his profession, by far the most fashionable painter in Regency society. This portrait is a token of that change, and a proof of the symbiosis of painter and painted. In return for a portrait that personifies the sitter as the ideal of male Society, Lawrence guarantees a further advertisement of his remarkable talents. His command of the medium is absolute, and whereas his earlier commission was blighted by a clash, however charmingly conducted, between painter and patron, here his control is unchallenged and there is a complete acceptance of his conception.

In the portrait of Miss Ross, the painter was at pains to exclude a harp with which she wanted to be shown. Lawrence's diplomatic pleas on the subject are worth quoting:

The Drapery shall be yellow and for a thousand reasons but principally because I know you will agree to my rubbing out the Harp. The Harp tis so commonplace.

He was not to be indulged, and neither then nor now was the resulting portrait of Miss Ross with a harp considered a success.
William Robertson of Chilcote, by comparison, is a triumph of restraint and dignity. The background and props have been reduced to a minimum necessary for conveying the painter's intention. Robertson is a model of elegance and prosperity, his dark coat and the exquisite taste of his dress indicate that he is a follower of the sober dress of the Prince Regent's entourage, a deliberate reaction to the peacock excesses of Napoleonic France.

Recent conservation has removed the later additions which superimposed an inappropriate buff waistcoat over the double-breasted coat and obscured the line of the sitter's waist. Revealed in the form that the painter intended, Robertson radiates dignity and authority, in addition to the particular beauty which Lawrence is able to suggest in his younger subjects.

The Robertsons were from Chilcote in Derbyshire which is clearly the location suggested in the background in the painting and are referred to as Squires in, for example, in Bagshaw's 1846 Trade Directory of Derbyshire: Francis Robertson, Esq., of Brighton, is lord of the manor and sole owner, who has within a few years rebuilt the village, under the superintendance ofJ.B.H. Bennett, Esq., of Tutbury.

By the date of this painting the Robertsons must have been comparatively recent residents in Brighton, as the fishing village of Brighthelmstone was entirely invented as a resort by the Prince of Wales. The family connection endured, however, at least until the late nineteenth century, as the loan of this portrait to the South Counties Exhibition of Works of Art at Brighton in 1867. It seems entirely appropriate that such an epitome as Regency elegance such as this should be associated with one of the most enduring creations of the Regency, the gilded fantasy world of the Prince Regent and Thomas Nash, captured exactly by the painting of Lawrence.
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