Members of the ton in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who wanted their likeness painted were spoilt for choice. The Golden Age of British portraiture had an artist to suit every taste but it was dominated by the big three: Reynolds offered stateliness and smoothness; Gainsborough naturalness and elegance; and Thomas Lawrence painted flashiness and sensuality.
Lawrence, the youngest of the three, is the one whose reputation fell fastest and furthest. Born in 1769 to a Devizes innkeeper, he was a child prodigy who rose to become George III's official painter and won both a knighthood and the presidency of the Royal Academy. Stendhal declared, "Mr Lawrence's name is immortal" and Delacroix claimed: ‘Nobody has ever painted eyes, women's eyes particularly, so well as Lawrence." His portraits definitively capture the Regency and its febrile glitter. Yet only 18 years after his death in 1830, he appeared in Vanity Fair as a tarnished figure, cuttingly dismissed by Thackeray in his listing of the paintings in Bareacres Hall: "The magnificent Vandykes; the noble Reynolds pictures; the Lawrence portraits, tawdry and beautiful, and, thirty years ago, deemed as precious as works of real genius."
Flirtatious and playful: Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren
The exhibition of Lawrence's work at the National Portrait Gallery (Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, until January 23) offers an opportunity to assess whether Stendhal or Thackeray was right. It is an opportunity, too, to see why the Victorians in particular looked at his portraits with a degree of suspicion.
Delacroix's comments hint at part of the reason. Beneath the dewy eyes of Lawrence's female sitters were often enough a pair of moist lips and a slightly dubious modesty. One contemporary newspaper declared that his portraits of women displayed a "gaudy dissoluteness of taste and sometimes trespass on moral, as well as professional chastity". A pseudonymous reviewer put it more pithily when discussing his picture of Lady Selina Meade: "Ha, there's Lady Selina Meade, very tasty indeed." And she is.
This tendency was deep-rooted. The diarist Joseph Farrington called Lawrence "a male coquet" while an admirer noted: "He could not write a common answer to a dinner invitation without it assuming the tone of a billet-doux." He even had to sign a legal deposition at Queen Caroline's divorce trial disclaiming adultery with the disgraced royal consort. However, this lively interest in his subjects as women also gives his portraits their charge. The actress Elizabeth Farren, for example, fires Lawrence — and therefore the viewer — with a flirtatious and playful gaze as she flitters across her parkland canvas; Frances Hawkins lounges with her illegitimate son in a pose of rumpled unaffectedness; Rosamund Croker is simply a beauty.