This long pursuit, p.24
This Long Pursuit, p.24Richard Holmes
I wish the sex was kinder grown,
And when they find a man alone,
Would treat him like a woman …
For all his success as a society painter, Lawrence always claimed that his real wish was to execute large historical and mythological paintings, and he repeatedly said he had betrayed his own genius by abandoning such epic themes as Satan Summoning his Legions (1797). Although this sensational scene from Milton answered the academic demands of history painting, the most prized of all artistic genres at that period, Lawrence was perhaps also haunted by more private and autobiographical motifs, going right back to his childhood and his triumphant performances from Paradise Lost.
This same year 1797 was an unusually turbulent one for Lawrence. Then approaching thirty, he suddenly lost both of his supportive and adoring parents, and clearly had some kind of emotional breakdown. What exactly this involved remains obscure, except that he embarked on a strangely melodramatic affair with both of Sarah Siddons’s daughters simultaneously, and then threatened to commit suicide. It was precisely at this time that he produced one of his most beautiful and haunting Miltonic drawings, Satan as a Fallen Angel. Continuing the intensely personal theme of a Lost Paradise, this is a study of two friends, two golden and androgynous young men, standing shoulder to naked shoulder, who appear to share some secret knowledge or guilty burden. Perhaps, as in the earlier double portrait of Holcroft and Godwin, they are on trial together.
Subsequently Lawrence was the subject of endless tittle-tattle and gossip. His name was linked romantically with many of his sitters, although only the female ones have come down to us. They include Mrs Siddons and her daughters, the Duchess of Devonshire, Mrs Papendiek, the Honourable Miss Upton, the actress Fanny Kemble, and even the unhappy Queen Caroline herself. (Indeed, Lawrence had to sign a legal deposition disclaiming adulterous opportunity before Queen Caroline’s trial for divorce in Parliament.) Most problematic of all was his relationship with the beautiful Isabella Wolff (another divorcee), who may indeed have genuinely been his mistress.
Lawrence met Mrs Wolff in 1803, after the long and hysterical entanglement with the two Siddons girls was over. (André Maurois wrote an entire novel about this, Mape: The World of Illusion (1926), shrewdly suggesting Lawrence was not really in love with them at all, but was in thrall to their mother.) His extensive, gossipy correspondence with the maternal Mrs Wolff was subsequently censored by his first biographer. An odd, amorous fragment from a letter written in Rome in June 1819 has survived. It gives a glimpse of Lawrence’s billet-doux style: ‘My Bed Room Window is so small that only one Person can conveniently look out of it, but it looks over St Peter’s … and as sweet Evening closes I often squeeze you into it, though it does hurt you a little by holding your arm so closely within mine …’ But this is all imaginary, as in fact Isabella was in London at the time.
Lawrence’s magnificent silvery portrait of Mrs Wolff – the most Sibylline he ever painted – conveniently took him some thirteen years to complete. It is large, glowing, statuesque, and opulent. Cassandra Albinson shrewdly points to the luxurious silks bulging over Isabella’s stomach – ‘the painting betrays an anxiety about pregnancy and generation’. She even suggests that they had a child together, Herman St John Wolff, though the documentation she refers to remains inconclusive.
Another mystery is Lawrence’s finances. Despite his ever-increasing fees, he remained in debt for his whole life. By 1807 his bankers, Coutts, reckoned he owed some £20,000. Exactly what he spent his money on remains an enigma. Perhaps it was his excellent collection of Old Masters – eventually sold to Queen Victoria to pay his creditors on his death. His bankers – after Coutts it was Barings, both of whose families he painted – were always trying to get him to budget, and always failing to do so. His friend Farington mildly suggested that he was no good at accounting for his money, and probably gave much of it away anyway.
Certainly Lawrence had an acute and generous eye for his fellow artists, and his letters show the encouragement and support that he gave to J.M.W. Turner, Richard Parkes Bonnington, John James Audubon and William Blake. Lawrence was one of the very few contemporaries who praised and actually purchased a copy of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He also said Blake’s The Wise and Foolish Virgins was his ‘favourite drawing’, and kept it on a special table in his bedroom.
Lawrence’s studios were always ultra-fashionable. His first, at 41 Jermyn Street, is now appropriately occupied by the tradesmen’s entrance of Fortnum & Mason. The demand for portrait sittings was as relentless as consultations with a modern Harley Street specialist (and similarly priced). He would undertake as many as five two-hour sittings a day, charging a 50 per cent deposit. Consequently, much of his correspondence was concerned with the failure to deliver finished portraits, sometimes drawn out over many years. Lord Ellenborough once threatened to prosecute him in the courts for refusing to complete a painting of his wife. Another aggrieved client challenged Lawrence to a dawn duel in Hyde Park.
Alfred, one of Lawrence’s most faithful assistants, slyly suggested that unfinished portraits had their own uses, especially with female clients of a certain age:
Some of them do come in a huff, but they always go away pleased, for my master brings out the picture, and says it needs only be altered in the dress, and then they think they are handsomer than ever. One old lady came the other day and asked to see a picture of her begun twenty years ago … Do finish it Sir Thomas, it is such an excellent likeness.
Much changed for Lawrence after 1810, with the death of his arch-rival John Hoppner. He soon executed his first portrait of the Prince Regent (later George IV), became the official court painter, and moved into grandiose apartments in Russell Square. In 1814 he was commissioned by the Prince to paint all the European leaders of the wartime coalition against Napoleon. This took him intermittently to Paris, Vienna and Rome over a period of five years. He embarked on his huge, ambitious portraits of the mighty soldiers, statesmen, monarchs, clerics and self-important princelings of the age, and these made him an international star. He was knighted, and began to move in exalted social circles, hobnobbing with the grand and wealthy (the charming Prince Metternich was a particular favourite) and writing long, excited letters to Mrs Wolff about it all. He even painted the Pope. To top it all, he was appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1820.
To this heady period belong the great series of ‘swagger portraits’, as they were once dismissively called. Here Lawrence’s natural sense of theatre and dynamic style strive for a new dimension of historic resonance. Three of these enormous portraits, each about nine feet tall, were eventually absorbed into the Royal Collection. Each is closely associated with the defeat of Napoleon on the battlefield. One can practically hear the bellicose roar of Field Marshal von Blücher sending his troops into the fray; while the quiet, resolute elegance of the Archduke Charles of Austria commemorates one of the master strategists of the allied coalition. Both are still swathed in the smoke of battle, glamorously celebrating a defining international victory. But perhaps most subtly impressive of all is the shrunken figure of Pope Pius VII, the man who endured Napoleon’s prisons for four years but survived as a moral centre of European opposition and eventually brought back all the plundered art treasures to Italy. It is a complex, masterly study of both fortitude and cunning.
However, even here, Lawrence’s decorative and diplomatic talents were not without his detractors. The glamorised portraits of the obese Prince Regent particularly attracted mockery. The republican critic William Hazlitt slyly observed that Lawrence had skilfully transformed the Prince into a ‘well-fleshed’ Adonis: ‘The portrait goes far beyond all that wigs, powders, and pomatums have been able to afford over the last twenty years.’
On his return home, Lawrence performed the same magical stagecraft on government figures such as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel and George Canning. Although sometimes undoubtedly stagey, these pictu
Equally, the powerful but startlingly unfinished portrait of William Wilberforce, the great Evangelical Christian reformer and campaigner against the slave trade, is brilliantly worked up from a charcoal under-drawing. It seems to have been painted in a single afternoon session, on 28 May 1828. This speed was required because Wilberforce was in continuous physical pain at the end of his life, his body encased in a steel and leather girdle for support. Even holding his head upright during the studio sitting was exhausting. As usual Lawrence adapted to his sitter, and rapidly produced this extraordinary image of moral determination combined with tenderness. Wilberforce’s gentle smile triumphs over his cruel pain, and this is the story of his life. Here too Lawrence’s rhetorical skill is evident in the dark, dashed-in background behind the head, so Wilberforce’s face seems radiant with inner light, achieving the dramatic suggestion of a secular saint with a halo.
Lawrence’s old sense of freedom and daring was developed even more fully in his later portraits of women. He had previously shown the glowing sexual radiance of Frances Hawkins, shamelessly reflected in the hot, loving glance of her illegitimate child and the panting of her large pet dog – a triangular short-circuit of passion. Now he gave the pert, seductive charm of Lady Selina Meade, the arch amusement of the Princess Sophia, or the tender, teasing melancholy of Rosamund Croker a rich and sumptuous life all their own.
The ravishing portrait of Margaret, Countess of Blessington (originally a working girl, just like Nelson’s Emma, Lady Hamilton), is one of the most glorious, brazen pictures Lawrence ever painted. Lord Byron, when he first met Lady Blessington in Italy, instantly identified her as the subject of Lawrence’s picture and the archetype of the English Regency belle. All London was ‘raving’ over it, and over her, the author of Don Juan noted appreciatively. Even better, she gave his own mistress, Countess Guiccioli, ‘a furious fit of Italian jealousy’.
When Lawrence first began to exhibit in Paris, towards the end of his meteoric career in the 1820s, he was greeted as one of the great, liberating harbingers of British Romanticism, and awarded the Légion d’Honneur. His art was seen as part of that movement that overturned all the old restrictions of classicism: the poetry of Lord Byron, the experimental science of Sir Humphry Davy, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the landscapes of Constable, and the portraits of Lawrence. ‘The English manner enjoys a triumph in Paris,’ wrote the young Stendhal. ‘Mr. Lawrence’s name is immortal.’ Delacroix enthused: ‘Nobody has ever painted eyes, women’s eyes particularly, so well as Lawrence … He is inimitable.’ Théophile Gautier later said Lawrence had single-handedly invented the ‘English rose’ type, with a complexion finer than ‘rice-paper, or the pulpy petal of the magnolia, or the inner pellicle of the egg, or the vellum of the gothic miniaturists’.
Lawrence’s pictures of children also took his Continental viewers by storm. His ebullient Laura Anne and Emily Calmady, in which the younger girl is practically kicking out of the picture frame, suggested a whole new uninhibited approach to childhood. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French critics proclaimed, was vindicated. And as for The Red Boy in his scarlet velveteens? This was not simply a beautiful chocolate-box image, as is now so easily assumed. In fact it was the portrait of a beautiful doomed child, the young Charles Lambton, who would die aged thirteen. He is the boy who will never live to grow up. But he became immortal, because he was quickly assumed to be an imaginary portrait of the dreaming youthful Byron, the very soul of English Romanticism. This was partly why he was reproduced across Europe, and then America, as a symbol of eternal hope and youthful promise. With him, Lawrence had transcended personal portraiture, and captured the spirit of the age.
From this professional and social high point, the swift collapse of Lawrence’s reputation after his death in 1830, partly as the result of Victorian prudery, is an interesting matter of social history as much as art history. Thackeray, for instance, ridiculed Lawrence’s flashy values in Vanity Fair (1847), and attacked his female portraits as ‘tawdry’. The modern art critic William Vaughan derided him as a painter ‘in a state of permanent adolescence’, much as Dr Leavis once criticised Shelley.
But the longer, historical perspective is possible once again. Charles Baudelaire in his Salon of 1845 contrasted Lawrence’s work with the cold, exacting ‘portrait historique’ of David and Ingres, and compared it favourably to the warm ‘portrait romantique’ of Reynolds and Rembrandt. It was a shrewd observation. Sir Thomas Lawrence belongs in such company, and is worthy of renewed popular appreciation. The English Regency would be impossible to understand without his flamboyant work; and the history of Romanticism would be poorer and plainer without his strange, colourful and provoking story. Lawrence himself, contrary to any idea of easy facility, always spoke with disarming modesty about his own art of portraiture, which he felt he had never entirely mastered: ‘I am perpetually mastered by it … as much the slave of the picture I am painting, as if it had a living personal existence, and chained me to it.’
I was once asked to give a lecture at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, London, in the very same lecture theatre where both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Humphry Davy had lectured two hundred years previously. This was a particular challenge for a Romantic biographer, so I decided that the Romantic lecture itself must be my topic. That evening, quivering with nerves like an aeolian harp, I mounted the wooden steps to the sacred dais, clutching awkwardly in both hands a large leather-bound folio volume. From the scattered headings in my notebooks, the following is a rough reconstruction of what I then said.
Young Coleridge is remembered as an epic walker, both in the West Country and the Lake District. He was also an eccentric one. He once said that he had walked for the whole of a hot summer’s day from Bristol to Stowey, a distance of forty miles, ‘carrying Baxter’s folio On the Immortality of the Soul – and a plucked goose – and the giblets – for my supper’.
The older Coleridge is equally remembered as an epic lecturer, and his carefully edited Shakespeare Lectures now fill two volumes. But here too he was to some degree eccentric, and indeed his contemporary reputation was little short of catastrophic. I would like to present another kind of ‘immortal’ folio which may throw light on the actual experience of his lecturing, and what it was really like. Here in my hands is the original minute book of the Royal Institution for the period 1807 to 1809, which is still preserved in the Institution’s archives, in its battered cloth and leather binding. This is the entry for 7 December 1807:
Mr Bernard reported that Mr Coleridge will give in the ensuing Season five courses of five Lectures each on the distinguished English Poets in illustration of the General Principles of Poetry … from Shakespeare to the Moderns … to begin immediately, and to give one or two lectures a week as may be convenient, for a compliment of £140, of which £60 is proposed to be paid in advance.
These twice-weekly lectures began in February 1808. But four months later we find this dramatic entry in the Royal Institution minute book for 13 June:
William Savage, the assistant secretary, laid before the Managers the following letter from Mr Coleridge. Dear Sir, Painful as it is to me almost to anguish, yet I find my health in such a state as to make it almost Death to me to give any further Lectures. I beg that you would acquaint the Managers that instead of expecting any remuneration, I shall, as soon as I can, repay the sum I have received. I am indeed more likely to repay it by my Executors, than myself. If I could quit my Bed-room, I would have hazarded every thing rather than not have come, but I h
My question is: what happened to Coleridge (and his biography) between these two entries? The invitation to lecture had originated with his friend Davy, who had been trying to bring him to the lecture dais ever since the poet’s return from Malta in the summer of 1806. He wrote to Coleridge’s West Country friend the radical tanner Tom Poole in August 1807, promising to relaunch Coleridge’s public career, both for his own good and for the good of the nation: ‘The Managers of the Royal Institution are very anxious to engage him; and I think he might be of material service to the public, and of benefit to his own mind … In the present condition of society, his opinion in matters of taste, literature, and metaphysics must have a healthy influence …’
Considering Coleridge’s reputation at this date, such an invitation could be considered as one of Davy’s most daring experiments in chemical combustibles. He knew Coleridge not only as a visionary poet, but also as a man suffering from opium addiction, unrequited love, and a prolonged writer’s block. After numerous delays Coleridge began to lecture on Friday, 15 January 1808. He broke off, and started again on Friday, 5 February. He broke off again – and began once more on Wednesday, 30 March. He eventually completed eighteen, or possibly twenty, lectures, but they appear to be remembered as nothing but a catalogue of disasters and disappointments.
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