Famine to Fortune – Bonhams to Sell Painting by Britains Premier Regency Portrait Artist

b-erez.jpgA spectacular full-length portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (British, 1769-1830), the most successful portrait painter of his time, is set to make up to £500,000 in Bonhams’ Old Master Paintings sale in London, New Bond Street on 5 December 2007. Lawrence was one of the most talented and respected artists of the Regency era despite never having received any artistic instruction. His natural eye was to catapult him into an entirely different social stratosphere, from the son of a failed innkeeper to the President of the Royal Academy and lover to the Prince Regent’s wife.

Lawrence came from extremely humble origins- the son of an innkeeper, he grew up in the tavern his family ran in Bristol. Bankruptcy ruined his father and forced the family to leave the area when Lawrence was barely ten years old. His extraordinary gift for capturing peoples’ faces was evident from a very early age and before long it was this talent that was putting food on the family’s table.

Knowing that his family depended on him for survival Lawrence made his way to London in pursuit of fame and fortune. When Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, met him, he was so overwhelmed by Lawrence’s individual style that he immediately pronounced him the most promising genius he had ever met with. It was not long before every nobleman in the country wanted his portrait painted by Lawrence.

The Royal Family

Lawrence’s dizzy social ascent was confirmed when aged just twenty he caught the attention of Queen Charlotte and was commissioned to paint her portrait, an unprecedented request given his youth. The painting was widely considered a masterpiece and aptly captured the distress the Queen must have suffered during her husband’s madness.

Lawrence went on to paint most members of the troubled Royal Family and he was appointed King’s Painter in 1792. His portrait of George IV was given iconic status, immortalised in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair when Becky Sharp buys a print to commemorate her presentation at court.

A real life Becky Sharp, Lawrence continued to rise up socially driven by a boundless energy and ambition. He was commercially very successful, making and spending a lot of money. His client list read like a Who’s Who of Regency England, including such notable personages as the Duke of Wellington, Lady Emma Hamilton and William Wilberforce. One of his favourite subjects was Caroline of Brunswick, wife to George IV and the two were reputedly lovers for some time. Caroline was a very tragic and controversial figure; George IV put her on trial when he ascended the throne for treasonous adultery and barred her from his coronation. The shock took an enormous toll on her and she died two weeks later.

In 1815 Lawrence was knighted and three years later, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was sent by the Prince Regent on a tour of Europe to paint the allied sovereigns who had helped defeat Napoleon, including the Emperor Alexander and Pope Pius VII.

On his return to England Lawrence was made president of the Royal Academy, a position he held until his death in 1830. The artist, who had made such a meteoritic rise during his lifetime, was given a State funeral and was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral. The funeral was considered a national event and was painted by Turner who had greatly revered Lawrence.

The portrait for sale at Bonhams is of Mrs Arthur Annesley and her two children. Mrs Annesley had ten children during her lifetime and the painting took so long to complete that it is impossible to say exactly which children are portrayed although it is probable that the elder child is Arthur Annesley. The backdrop to the painting is almost certainly the grounds of Bletchingdon Park, the family estate located between Oxford and Bicester. The portrait would not have been delivered to Bletchingdon until after Lawrence’s sudden death, by which time the young Arthur would have been in his mid 40’s and the sittings with Lawrence must have seemed a distant memory.