This long pursuit, p.23
This Long Pursuit, p.23Richard Holmes
With this goes the infinitely puzzling difference between chance and destiny in biographical narrative: between the contingent and the inevitable, between the phrase ‘and then …’ and the phrase ‘and because …’, which each advance the story in such different ways. The underlying trajectory of a life, the balance between the ‘driven’ and the ‘driving’, is always so hard to gauge. Mary herself came to reflect on this, puzzling over why she and Shelley ended up at Casa Magni at all: ‘But for our fears on account of our child, I believe we should have wandered over the world, both being passionately fond of travelling. But human life, besides its great unalterable necessities, is ruled by a thousand Lilliputian ties that shackle at the time, although it is difficult to account afterwards for their influence over our destiny.’
Finally, there remains the constant need to re-examine the role of time in biography. We know that ‘once upon a time’ is fantasy; but what about ‘at this time’, or ‘in this age’; or even more, ‘among his contemporaries’? What is ‘a lifetime’? What is ‘the time of death’? (Shelley’s watch, now preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, is stopped at precisely thirteen minutes past five.) Is human time different from historical time? Is historical time different from biographical time? To repeat Virginia Woolf (once again): ‘It’s a difficult business, this time-keeping. The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute.’ The twenty-nine-year-old Shelley remarked to Hunt at Livorno, just before he died, that he felt he had lived to be older than his grandfather – ‘I am ninety years old.’
Shelley’s theory (based on the philosophy of Hume) was that human time is not experienced uniformly, but is controlled by the speed and intensity of impressions and ideas. As he had written ten years earlier, in Queen Mab: ‘The Life of a man of virtue and talent, who should die in his thirtieth year, is – with regard to his own feelings – longer than that of a miserable priest-ridden slave, who dreams out a century of dullness … Perhaps the perishing firefly enjoys a longer life than the tortoise.’ And perhaps this was Shelley’s own version of the ‘Lifespan Litany’.
Certainly biographical time is not divided into equal chapters. Nor is the ‘death scene’ the true end of any significant human story. We need to be aware that many lives change their shape as we look back on them. The dead may always have more life, more time, to give us. Shelley may forever be ‘unextinguished’, undrowned. The dead may always be biographically immortal.
Thomas Lawrence Revarnished
In the grey autumn of 2010, at the height of the European financial crisis and recession, I walked in from a bleak, gloomy, rainswept Trafalgar Square, to a dazzling exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was entitled ‘Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance’. For me it was a completely unexpected and hugely cheering experience. Lawrence’s pictures flooded the rooms with colour, energy and spectacular self-confidence. As I went round, I felt a kind of spreading, inward glow. I noticed that the other gallery-goers responded in the same way, their faces steadily lighting up as they circulated, and when they left they seemed to walk out with a new spring in their step. By my calculation, one in three of them also carried away under their arm, as a trophy, one of the huge, exuberant Lawrence catalogues. That included me.
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) belongs to the genial ‘Golden Age’ of British portrait-painting – the age of Gainsborough, Northcote, Hoppner, Phillips, Beechey and Sir Joshua Reynolds. But his reputation, unlike theirs, has fluctuated in a remarkable way. Sometimes he has been regarded as the dazzling, bravura master of Regency portraiture; at others as a brash and sentimental commercial artist – with the distinction of having invented the Chocolate Box School of Portraiture. On closer inspection, Lawrence’s whole biography, as well as his art, reflects something of this intriguing dilemma.
His luscious treatment of edible young Regency debutantes, sugar-frosted grenadiers and apple-cheeked babies has frequently provoked sly amusement, if not outright derision. His jealous contemporary Benjamin Robert Haydon observed: ‘Lawrence … was suited to the age, and the age to him. He flattered its vanities, pampered its weaknesses, and met its meretricious taste.’
One of his most famous paintings, Charles William Lambton, subsequently known as The Red Boy (1825), has frequently graced tins of toffees and shortbread, and in 1969 appeared on the British 4d postage stamp. Wordsworth, the great poet of remembered childhood, said of The Red Boy when it was first exhibited: ‘Lawrence’s portrait of young Lambton is a wretched histrionic thing; the public taste must be vitiated indeed, if that is admired.’ A modern art critic in the Observer once noted dryly: ‘Lawrence does for children what Disney does for deer.’
This trail of mockery has pursued Lawrence into the twenty-first century. It has been said that his only true artistic successor was the raffish fashion photographer Cecil Beaton. Even the mild-mannered ‘Oxford History of Art’ Portraiture (2004), by Shearer West, chose to praise Lawrence by burying him. Though there are thirteen references to his immediate predecessor Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lawrence’s name does not appear even in the index.
The National Gallery exhibition set out to change all this, and succeeded with such a flourish that it eventually transferred across the Atlantic to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. It set out to show how Lawrence defined and celebrated the most exuberant aspects of the English Regency: its flamboyant high society, its glittering soldiers and statesmen, its glamorous women, its elegant actors and dandies, and – yes – its well-fed children. Admittedly it found little room for any images of the poor, the maimed or the starving, even though this was the period of the Napoleonic Wars and their bitter aftermath.
The catalogue was one of the most splendidly illustrated I have seen, with over a hundred full-page plates, and numerous details and drawings. These were accompanied by three fine critical essays: a subtle exploration of Lawrence’s changing ideals of Regency ‘masculinity’ (from the foppish to the martial) by Peter Funnell of the National Portrait Gallery; a scholarly defence of his child portraits and an examination of the shifting historical conventions of ‘innocence’ (drolly entitled ‘Charming Little Brats’) by Marcia Pointon; and a wonderfully deft and perceptive analysis of his female portraits by a curator of paintings and sculptures at the Yale Center, Cassandra Albinson.
Albinson’s essay is carefully titled ‘The Construction of Desire’. It reveals hitherto quite unexpected depths in Lawrence’s play between ideal mythic women (Psyche, the Sibyl) and his actual, extremely worldly sitters, like the celebrated actress Sarah Siddons, the notorious Countess of Blessington, or the gorgeous Lady Frances Hawkins, the Irish mistress of his friend Lord Abercorn. It meditates tactfully on ‘the conflicting messages of brazenness and softness’. There are brilliant passages on Lawrence’s brush techniques, such as his special method of illuminating female eyes, his way of capturing a flirtatious gaze, or his ‘flurry of white highlights’ on romantically disordered hair, which ‘indicate visually the underlying intimate encounter between artist and sitter’. As the banker-poet Samuel Rogers was rumoured to have quipped: ‘If I wanted my mistress painted I would go to Lawrence; if my wife, I would go to [Thomas] Phillips.’
Lawrence himself was no product of the London high life. He was born in Bristol in April 1769, the son of a tavern-keeper, and grew up at his father’s celebrated coaching inn, the Black Bear, on the Devizes road in Wiltshire. A beautiful and gifted child, he was considered a prodigy by his parents, able to recite Milton’s Paradise Lost, act scenes from Shakespeare plays, and dash off astonishing pastel drawings of his father’s customers as they sat at table, all by the time he was five years old.
His instinctive skill as a draftsman at catching ‘likenesses’ of his father’s customers (it was noted that he usually took ‘about seven minutes’), especially the fashionable female ones, was soon remarked on
Evidently he did not charge enough. When Lawrence was eleven, his father went bankrupt. More keen than ever to exploit his gifts, his parents took the precocious boy first to Oxford and then to fashionable Bath (the city of Beau Brummell), where characteristically he caught the attention of both Sarah Siddons and the fashionable socialite the Duchess of Devonshire. It is possible to sense the kind of obsessive parental grooming that we might now associate with a young tennis star.
Next his parents launched him in London, at the age of seventeen, from rooms off Leicester Square. Here he met the ageing President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was said to have taken one look at his portfolio and immediately prophesied a great future. Another flattering rumour (young Lawrence was already collecting them) had Reynolds pronouncing: ‘In you, Sir, the world will expect to see accomplished what I have failed to achieve.’ Lawrence briefly attended the Royal Academy Schools, but it is thought this apprenticeship lasted less than three months – the only institutional training he ever had.
From then on Lawrence’s professional success was, in his own phrase, ‘truly meteoric’. He was elected associate of the Royal Academy of Arts at the age of twenty-two, Painter-in-Ordinary to the King George III at twenty-three, a full member of the Royal Academy at the age of twenty-five, made a baronet in his mid-forties, and elected President of the Royal Academy in 1820 at the age of fifty-one. His earliest pastel portraits at the Black Bear Inn had been sold for half a guinea. Some of his last portraits in oils went for nine hundred each.
Lawrence had almost no serious artistic apprenticeship as a boy. Yet one of the most striking revelations of the exhibition is that, from the very beginning, he was a brilliant delineator of the human face in chalk, crayon, pencil or pastel. He had already been mentioned in an essay on ‘child prodigies’ by the critic Daines Barrington as early as 1781, when he was a mere twelve. One can see why. His teenage drawings show him confident, exuberant and psychologically acute, often witty and even mischievous. He has extraordinary facility. Images of every kind simply flow or spin onto the paper. There is no real explanation of this phenomenon, though one is reminded that this was, after all, the age of youthful genius par excellence: Chatterton, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and even the chemist Sir Humphry Davy.
Indeed, Davy’s upwardly mobile career in science almost exactly parallels that of Lawrence in the arts. From obscure West Country roots in Cornwall, Davy was knighted for his revolutionary work in chemistry by the age of thirty-three, and was elected President of the Royal Society in 1820, at the age of forty-one. Appropriately enough, he was then painted by Lawrence to commemorate that very achievement: two provincial boys made good, gleefully celebrating their mutual triumph over the cultural establishment.
What young Lawrence was capable of is demonstrated by the exquisite, witty, sophisticated drawing of his early friend and mentor Mary Hamilton and her amazing Bo-Peep hat. It was executed in 1789, at the age of nineteen, when he was first starting to exhibit at the Royal Academy. It is part fashion plate and part romantic mood study. To the fine mesh of black chalk he has added flushed highlights in sanguine (a favourite technique), like too much excitement rising into his subject’s lips and cheeks.
The effect is deliberately theatrical, dressy and provocative. Mary’s pose is self-conscious, and curiously teasing. It may have been inspired by the pre-Revolutionary aristocratic fashion for playing pastoral shepherdesses, much favoured by Marie Antoinette. But it could also be a sly satire on this already dated French fad, bearing in mind that the Bastille fell that same year. In fact, is the beautiful Mary Hamilton about to burst out laughing?
A similar teasing ambiguity attends Lawrence’s sparkling and mischievous drawing of Mrs Papendiek (also 1789). It was executed at Windsor Castle, where he was officially painting the ageing Queen Charlotte. One morning, abruptly refused further sittings by the impatient and irritable monarch, the nonchalant young Lawrence asked her lady-in-waiting, Mrs P, to model the royal jewels in her stead. He carefully posed her in a nearby anteroom, getting her to sit with daringly bared arms. To amuse the pretty Mrs P, and probably to flirt with her as well, Lawrence suggested she put on her own fashionable new hat, and for good measure include her little boy in the portrait too. The result is a brilliant, witty study in Regency style and manners. It deliberately prompts the question: Is Mrs P more proud of her child, or of her hat? Is motherhood or millinery more important?
For his first fifteen years in London, between 1790 and 1805, Lawrence’s portraits were continuously prominent at the Royal Academy exhibitions. Although sometimes mocked and criticised, he continued to develop what was in effect a new Romantic look. He plunged into the heady Regency world of aristocracy, fashion and theatre, but also found time for one daring piece of political reportage. This is his dramatic drawing of the young radical Thomas Holcroft and his supporter, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, at the celebrated Treason Trials of 1794, held at the Old Bailey. Lawrence has chosen an intensely theatrical moment. Holcroft – on a capital charge – is stoically waiting for the jury to deliver its verdict: death, transportation, or liberty. He sits leaning slightly backwards, his hand coolly on his hip; while Godwin sits staunchly by his side, peering intensely forward through his spectacles. Male friendship in adversity had great emotional significance for Lawrence, and the double portrait became a favourite motif. In this case, the verdict was not guilty.
For the young women of the time, Lawrence’s sense of Romantic style and flamboyance often outran the tastes of even the most fashionable. The dazzling, airy portrait of the thirty-year-old actress Elizabeth Farren announced his triumphant arrival at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790. Her fresh, seductive figure is offset by an astonishing and virtuoso display of textures: muslin, fur, satin and silk, and above all, perhaps, her limp, fine leather kid gloves. Each is rendered with sharp, voluptuous appreciation. At first the portrait drew only mocking reproach from its subject. Mr Lawrence had actually made Miss Farren far too thin (a criticism difficult to imagine today): ‘You might blow me away,’ she groaned to him, ‘in short you must make me a little fatter, at all events diminish the bend you are so attached to, even if it make the picture itself look ill …’ Despite these unconvincing protests, Elizabeth Farren was shortly to become Lady Derby, for which achievement Lawrence undoubtedly took not a little credit.
During these same momentous years, following the French Revolution and the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Lawrence also identified a new swaggering masculine style emerging among the young men of the Regency. Significantly it was ‘Byronic’ some ten years before Byron actually adopted it himself. Dark, dandyish, dashing, brooding, it combined an extraordinary mixture of male arrogance and almost feminine beauty, emphasised by vivid clothes, peacock hairstyles, and smouldering glances. This can be seen most strikingly in the glowering, explosive sketch of Lawrence’s fellow artist Richard Westall, or the tempestuous portraits of the Etonian school-leaver Arthur Atherley, or the swarthy aristocratic traveller Lord Mountstuart.
Here Lawrence was painting his own generation, and effectively bringing it onto the stage of history. The images are powerful, confident and confrontational. He supplied his subjects with stormy or melodramatic backgrounds, dashed in with fast, free brushstrokes as if liberating them from an old world of conventions. In contrast to the previous generation of artists – the smoothness of Reynolds or the feather-light touch of Gainsborough – he rendered their clothes with thickly applied paint, strongly contrasted colours and glittering, almost metallic highlights. With these techniques Lawrence expressed a new age of patriotism, flamboyance and bold individuality.
For all the wonderful extravagance of his portraiture, Lawrence’s own life appeared – on t
He could not write a common answer to a dinner invitation without it assuming the tone of a billet-doux. The very commonest conversation was held in that soft, low whisper and with that tone of deference and interest, which are so unusual and so calculated to please.
While a male friend referred to him, with a certain admiration, as ‘an old flirt’.
This insidious gift for intimacy, for making everyone feel special, which Lawrence practised on both his male and female subjects, was evidently an essential part of his magic as a portrait painter. It was his actor’s ability to enter into all their characters and moods; and also that instinct to charm and flatter, which he had learned as a child. His drawing expressed this same swift and sometimes teasing empathy; while his paintings added those theatrical elements of glamour and gusto that became his trademark.
In an unexpected moment of self-revelation, Lawrence once summed up his own character as a combination of ‘Genius … infected by Romance … and wasted by Indolence … and Languor’. He added, with suggestive emphasis, that he had the mark of ‘the Voluptuary’ about his person, and that playing around his mouth were ‘Passions powerful [enough] to ruin, to debase or to elevate the Character’. Luckily, there was at least ‘some appearance of Fortitude in the Chin’. It is not quite clear what Lawrence meant by all this mystification. But as suits a Romantic figure, there remains a strange doubleness about his identity, a secretive and possibly bisexual quality that runs through both his life and his art. He once wrote a curious, camp little poem, ‘On Being Left Alone after Dinner’, which contains these lines:
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