Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Girl of the Basset Family, c.1785 

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Portrait of a Girl of the Basset Family, c.1785, Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA
Pastel on paper
18th Century
9 x 7 inches 24.1 x 19.1 cm
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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 continued 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.

These exquisite pastels were executed in Bath when Lawrence was amazing the town as a prodigy in the early 1780s. It is easy to see from the meticulous technique in building up of smooth, blended skin tones how the painter will mature into one of the finest and most flattering swagger portraitists since Van Dyck, and arguably one of the last. It is worth noting, however, that as much as Lawrence is admired as a magician of oil paint, the bedrock of his talent lay in his assured draughtsmanship: we can see it here in the confident and plausible construction of the figure within the oval -a task that many of his contemporaries were not able to manage so well- just as later he would with the same surety draw his sitters direct onto the canvas in paint.
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