Portrait of a young man
Country Life UK|February 17, 2021
A child prodigy who sold his first sketch aged five, the great portraitist met his match in royal women, says Matthew Dennison
Matthew Dennison

THOMAS LAWRENCE was never paid for the portrait he painted, in 1789, of George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Instead, the precocious 20-year-old submitted the picture to the Royal Academy (RA) in the spring of 1790, where it was judged among ‘the best Portraits in the Room’.

Neither King nor Queen agreed. Despite initiating the commission, Charlotte was upset by young Lawrence’s ‘rather presuming’ manner and granted him a single sitting. Her own manner on that occasion survives in primary sources as markedly prickly. From her sniffy hauteur, Lawrence wrested nevertheless an image of tranquil dignity, sumptuous in its treatment of the gauzy layers of her frock and the Queen’s milky complexion, spoiled by excessive snuff taking and the anxieties of 18 months that had witnessed her husband’s mental collapse, the horrors of the French Revolution and her eldest son’s insensitive lobbying for royal power.

Whatever the opinion of the royal couple, it was a work of considerable ability that played its part in consolidating Lawrence’s fledgling reputation among London’s connoisseurs. Two years later, lack of royal enthusiasm notwithstanding, the artist was appointed painter-in-ordinary to George III, following the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

In 1794, aged 25, Lawrence was elected a Royal Academician. For the remainder of his career, he earned golden opinions for work of scintillating brilliance, in which theatrical swagger partnered romantic sensibility and vivid flashes of character, all realised in dazzling brushwork. Shortly before his death, Lawrence’s unfinished portrait of the 4th Earl of Aberdeen was acclaimed as ‘certainly… the finest portrait in the world’.

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