Thomas Lawrence

Coming of Age

When he arrived in Bath from Devizes in 1780, eleven-year-old Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) was promoted as a natural-born genius like his Renaissance predecessor Raphael. The local press announced the arrival of the boy wonder and his ‘Striking Sketches’, inviting the ‘Nobility and Gentry’ to sit for their portraits.

Lawrence was to become one of the most famous and gifted artists to have worked in Bath, second only to Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788). Having made a name for himself in the West Country, the eighteen-year-old artist moved to London, where his glamorous and ambitious portraits of celebrities and royalty were met with disbelief. When the Royal Academy’s 22nd annual exhibition opened in April 1790, its most outstanding and innovative paintings included twelve of Lawrence’s portraits. Visitors and critics could scarcely believe that their creator was about to celebrate his twenty-first birthday.

This exhibition follows the young artist over a period of fifteen years, from his adolescence in Bath, where the teenager rapidly developed as a public figure and exceptional portraitist, to his early adulthood, when he moved to the capital and produced some of his most brilliant and memorable work, and finally to his mid-twenties, when he was elected as a Royal Academician. It tells the story of an artist coming of age and considers his depictions of fellow travellers on the journey from childhood to maturity.

Introduction by Exhibition Curator Amina Wright

Self Portrait Aged Twelve

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Prodigy

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806)

Striking Likenesses

Self-Portrait Oil on canvas, c.1787

Risking my Reputation

Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton (1783–1795)

Most Hazardous Step

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Prodigy

Lawrence began making portraits of visitors to the family-owned Black Bear inn in Devizes from as early as seven years old; his ‘astonishing skill in Drawing’ marked him as ‘not merely the wonder of their Family, but of the Times’ according to author Frances Burney, who met the then ten-year-old during her stay. By 1780, the family had moved to Bath and soon got to work establishing the young artist’s reputation and networks. The city offered every opportunity for the young Lawrence to grow from a provincial curiosity into a very promising painter, including access to old master paintings, a healthy market for portraits that refreshed itself regularly as seasonal visitors came and went, and several influential contacts and advocates who would help him on his way.

Self Portrait Aged Twelve
Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and North East Somerset Council/Bridgeman Images

Self-Portrait Aged Twelve

Graphite on vellum, 1781
10.5 x 8 cm

In the early 1780s Lawrence and his father were working hard to establish the young artist’s reputation in Bath; self-portraits were an effective piece of self-publicity. Here, Lawrence constructs an image of himself as both artist and child. His long curling hair recalls the young courtiers of Anthony van Dyck while the scarf draped round his shoulders suggests a dressing-up box, as though Lawrence is playing the part of an artist.

Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and North East Somerset Council
BATVG PD 1998.76

©The Holburne Museum

Head of Minerva

Metalpoint and graphite on vellum, 1779
7.8 x 6.2 cm
Inscription on backboard: Drawn at Oxford by Master Lawrence at the age of 11 years

This imaginary head of Minerva is the only known work dated to Lawrence’s time in Oxford, where the eleven-year-old had briefly gone with his father to explore his potential earning value before settling in Bath. The drawing gives the impression not so much of a Roman goddess as a Georgian lady in theatrical costume, with careful attention given to the reflective surfaces of the armour and helmet.

Private Collection

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

The Transfiguration, after Raphael (1483-1520)

Pastel on paper mounted on canvas, 1782
117.5 x 73.7 cm

Lawrence had been inspired by the Old Masters since at least the age of eight, when he is said to have seen a painting by Peter Paul Rubens at Corsham Court. The artist’s contacts in Bath opened doors to many private collections including that of the Hon. Charles Hamilton, who owned a copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration (1516-20). Aged thirteen, Lawrence made a suitably large copy of the masterpiece, which, in 1784, won him an award from the Society of Arts in London in recognition of its excellence.

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

The Hermit's Tale
©The Holburne Museum

The Hermit’s Tale

Metalpoint and graphite on vellum, 1786–87
9.5 x 12.1 cm

This drawing illustrates the closing scene of a Gothic romance by novelist Sophia Lee, in which a man makes his confession before dying in the arms of a monk. The figure recalls Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, but here the man is giving up his last breath rather than receiving his first. Lawrence greatly admired the Old Master, later remembering how as a boy ‘night after Night…I copied…the Prophets and Sybils [from the Sistine Chapel] from the Prints…I felt an Image of Grandeur in them that I was impress’d with by no other Work’.

Private Collection

©The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence

Master Lawrence

John Keyse Sherwin (1751–1790), probably after William Hoare (c.1707–1792)
Etching and engraving, 1783
29.9 x 23.5 cm

In 1780 Lawrence’s father began to publicise his son’s work in earnest by collecting subscriptions for an engraving that would serve as both calling card and advertisement. This print was a portrait of the boy rather than a reproduction of one of his drawings: the product on offer was the artist as much as his art. A later addition, published in 1783, references a 1781 collection of natural history essays by Daines Barrington that compared the child prodigy to Mozart.

The British Museum, London

Striking Likenesses

During the eighteenth century, Bath became a unique centre for leisure, healthcare and shopping during the annual ‘Season’ (roughly November to April), when the population swelled with visitors. Among the city’s many markets in luxury goods, one of the most significant was in portraits, which were available to suit a variety of budgets, from silhouette profiles to grand oil paintings. As Lawrence was still a child, his works had a unique selling point and at the opening of the 1780–81 Season, young Master Lawrence was presented to ‘The Nobility and Gentry’ in the pages of the Bath Chronicle. An advertisement announcing delivery of Sherwin’s print also offered ‘Striking Sketches of […] Likenesses, without loss of time’. With Bath’s flourishing portrait market and a rapid development in his competence in both pencil and crayon, the young Lawrence was soon able to provide a steady income for his family and build a notable reputation in the city’s artistic, cultural and commercial life.

©National Trust Images/John Hammond


Pastel on paper, c.1781–2
25.7 x 21 cm

In 1781–2 the young artist began producing portraits in pastel, a dry medium halfway between drawing and painting. In this early self-portrait Lawrence presents himself as a friendly, confident figure, turning to the viewer while showing off a sample of his work. He makes full use of the rich qualities of pastel to depict the varied textures of soft linen and lace, his silky curls and the vibrant colours of his coat.

The Vyne, National Trust, Hampshire
NT 718709

©The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence

Miss Anne Lawrence
Miss Hammond, Cousin of the Artist (1766–1835)

Graphite on vellum, 1781
10.3 x 7.8 cm, 13.7 x 9.9 cm

These two drawings show how much the unformed artist’s work could vary as he experimented with styles and techniques. The treatment of the artist’s sister is more idealised than that of their cousin: Anne is set in a landscape in profile, like an antique medallion, and her dress and loosely curling hair are less formal but more adult than Miss Hammond’s. Lawrence’s portrait of his cousin is one of his first works to forgo the full profile; without that distancing effect, his portraits suddenly burst into life.

The British Museum, London
1885,0613.90, 1885,0613.91

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806)
© The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806)

Pastel on paper, 1782
30 x 24.5 cm

Lawrence’s clientele included fashionable visitors to Bath. The artist’s informal image of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, uses the varied textures of pastel to depict her powdered hair, chalky complexion and the soft sheen of satin. The Duchess was one of the most portrayed women of her time, and this likeness seems to reveal the vivacious character that made her a popular celebrity.

© The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth.
WC 65

©The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence

Sarah Siddons (1755–1831) in the Character of Zara

John Raphael Smith (1751–1812), after Thomas Lawrence
Mezzotint, 1783
37.8 x 27.5 cm

One of the most celebrated actresses of her time, Sarah Siddons’ formative years were spent in Bath, where she became the undisputed star of tragedy. Understanding the value of portraiture in nurturing that fame, Siddons sat for many fashionable portraitists including Lawrence. This mezzotint engraving, after an original by Lawrence, was designed to appeal to the luxury end of the print market and captures some of the dynamism and power of the actress’s expression and gestures.

The British Museum, London

©The Holburne Museum

Abel Rous Dottin (1768–1852) and Samuel Dottin (1770–1797)

Graphite on paper, c.1784
22.5 x 18.6 cm, 22.2 x 18.7 cm

Lawrence’s meticulous studies of his neighbours, the Dottin brothers, depict boys who, like the artist, are on the cusp of adulthood. The qualities typical of Lawrence’s later portraiture are already present: the emphasis on bright eyes, glossy hair and the varied surface textures, together with a slightly uneasy sense that any imperfections have been smoothed away. The boys’ father, a major landowner in Barbados, had died in 1783, leaving them his joint heirs.

The Holburne Museum, Bath. Purchased with the assistance of the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Art Fund, the Friends of the Holburne Museum and a private donor, 2008
2008.1.2, 2008.1.1

George Isted. Lawrence, Thomas (British, 1769-1830). Pastel on paper, 323 x 272 mm, c. 1786. Batchelor's notes: 'Garlick in the Burlington, "Works on Sir Thomas Lawrence" 'Lieut Col. H.G. Sotheby has lent four portraits of members of the Isted family of Eaton Hall, dating from 1784 and 1788, which show how, instinctively, he conceived portraiture in terms of oil painting. He produces with chalk effects a strong contrasting colour and chiaroscuro of a very different kind from the delicate lines and tints of Downman and John Russell". 'Lawrence's Portraits in Pastel', The Times, 6/7/1957, with an illustration of his portrait of Elizabeth Carter (which was engraved in stipple by Caroline Watson). Acquisition Credit: Sir Ivor and Lady Batchelor Bequest.
©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

George Isted (1754–1821)

Pastel on paper, c.1786
32.3 x 27.2 cm

This portrait shows the level of technical skill that Lawrence had reached on the eve of his seventeenth birthday. His use of colour and tone to depict flesh and all the subtle variations in the texture and pigmentation of his sitter’s face, powdered hair and clothes show how Lawrence conceived pastel as a form of painting and partly explains how he could have made the smooth transition to oil painting so soon afterwards.

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Risking my Reputation

By the time Lawrence turned eighteen he had built up enough skill, confidence and contacts in Bath to embark on a new chapter of his career in London; in 1787, the teenage artist moved with his father to the capital, which had all the opportunities for training, publicity and companionship he needed to continue building his reputation and network.

In particular, London offered the Royal Academy, to which Lawrence was admitted as a student in September 1787 and where the annual summer exhibitions were an important showcase for anyone whose work was accepted for display. Lawrence first gained significant attention from the press at the 1789 exhibition; in response to the substantial group of oils he showed that year, one critic declared him ‘the Sir Joshua of futurity’. Just before his twenty-first birthday a year later, all twelve of the works Lawrence submitted — including notable royal and celebrity portraits — were accepted for display.

Self-Portrait Oil on canvas, c.1787
By kind permission of the owner


Oil on canvas, c.1787
63.5 x 50.8 cm

In London the eighteen-year-old Lawrence introduced himself to new social and artistic networks with a series of self-portraits. This work, one of the first to be painted in oil, marks a transition to a more mature style that embraces theatrical lighting, subdued colour and a deliberate lack of finish. Although legally still a minor, Lawrence has depicted himself as an adult and professional in a serious black suit and powdered hair tied in an old-fashioned queue.

Private Collection

Mary Hamilton née Aylward (c.1762–1837)
©The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence

Mary Hamilton née Aylward (c.1762–1837)

Graphite and red and black chalk on paper, 1789
45.8 x 31.2 cm

This drawing of one of Lawrence’s London friends was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789. The handling of chalk combines the confident dynamism of rapidly repeated strokes with soft touches of subtle colour. Seated under a canopy-like curtain, Mrs Hamilton is a matronly figure, but her pale, delicate face and wistful downward glance suggest a childlike fragility.

The British Museum, London. Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the British Museum Friends and the Ottley Group.

Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806)
©National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806)

Pastel on vellum, 1788–9
35 x 29.5 cm

Lawrence gradually abandoned pastel portraits in favour of oil and chalk. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790, this modest likeness of the seventy-one-year-old classical scholar Elizabeth Carter is one of his last and best portraits in pastel. Carter was famous for her exceptional intellect and was loved by her friends for her kindness, a combination that we might recognise in Lawrence’s sensitive portrayal. The area surrounding her portrait would have originally been covered by an oval frame.

National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 28

Queen Charlotte (1744–1818)
Photo ©The National Gallery, London

Queen Charlotte (1744–1818)

Oil on canvas, 1789
239.5 x 147 cm

Queen Charlotte enjoyed encouraging young talent: in 1764 she had welcomed the six-year-old Mozart, and when Lawrence was summoned to Windsor in 1789, he shared the royal household’s attention with the eleven-year-old violin virtuoso George Bridgetower. Lawrence’s portrait of the wife of George III is one of his most brilliant, combining an early tendency to paint in strong, flat blocks of colour with liquid paint, applied with confidence and vigour. The painting was a highlight at the 1790 exhibition, where it was declared ‘A performance of which VANDYKE would have been proud’.

National Gallery, London

William Lock of Norbury (1732–1810)
Photograph ©2021 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

William Lock of Norbury (1732–1810)

Oil on canvas, 1790
76.3 x 63.7 cm

This portrait, said to have been ‘hit off at a single sitting’, received unfeigned praise in the 1790 exhibition. In its unfinished, rapidly sketched state, it has an informality and immediacy that make the sitter tangibly present. Lock was a a wealthy connoisseur, collector and friend of the artist. His extended family offered Lawrence relaxation in their country homes, sympathetic ears and, following the deaths of both the artist’s parents in 1797, something approaching a family life.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Denman Waldo Ross as a Memorial to Charles G. Loring

Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby (c.1759–1829)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby (c.1759–1829)

Oil on canvas, 1790
238.8 x 146.1 cm

This painting appeared at the 1790 exhibition near Lawrence’s portrait of Queen Charlotte. The subject is celebrated actress Elizabeth Farren, whose fame and success in comedy brought her into high society. Although around thirty when Lawrence painted her, this portrait is a celebration of youthful energy: she wears a white muslin frock, once reserved for children but now fashionable for young women, and Lawrence has tinted her face and lips with the fresh pink colouring of a teenager.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Edward S. Harkness, 1940

La Penserosa (Lady Emma Hamilton)
©Bryan F. Rutledge B.A. ©Duke of Abercorn

‘La Penserosa’: Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765–1815)

Oil on canvas, 1792
243.8 x 152.4 cm

Emma Hart’s (née Lyon) celebrity reached its apex around 1800, when she returned to Britain from Naples alongside a victorious Lord Nelson. When Lawrence painted her in 1791, she was already the subject of great curiosity as an artist’s model as well as the mistress and soon-to-be wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador in Naples. Here, Lawrence presents her seated in a dark fantasy landscape, bare headed in the moonlight, her hair tumbling almost to the ground.

Abercorn Heirlooms Settlement

The Most Hazardous Step

Having produced portraits of several young sitters in Bath, the artist quickly learnt that children, with their soft, mobile features and fidgety bodies, present particular challenges when it comes to portraiture and likeness. As he grew older, Lawrence learnt to capture his young sitters with greater sympathy; during his first seven years in London, he demonstrated an extraordinary gift for expressing in paint and pencil the unique physical and psychological qualities of the young. These portraits of children, adolescents and young adults have a remarkable power and individuality, whether depicting the playful nature of siblings, the energetic and curious countenance of a young teenager, or the ambition of a school-leaver on the cusp of adulthood.

Princess Amelia (1783–1810)
Royal Collection Trust / ©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Princess Amelia (1783–1810)

Oil on canvas, 1789
58.8 x 44.1 cm

Of Lawrence’s twelve works in the 1790 exhibition, five were portraits of children; the one that received most attention was Princess Amelia, a likeness of George III’s much-loved youngest child, painted at the same time as her mother Queen Charlotte. Here Lawrence already demonstrates some of the hallmarks of his best portraits of children: extravagantly vivid colours, luxuriant hair and a red, white and pink complexion shaded with blue.

Royal Collection Trust, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
RCIN 400936

Unfinished Portrait of a Young Girl
Patrick Bourne & Co.

Unfinished Portrait of a Young Girl

Oil on canvas, c.1790
56 x 52 cm

This portrait gives a sense of Lawrence’s early and rapid progress in mastering child portraiture. There is an immediacy in the mixture of hesitancy and pertness with which this little girl faces her adult viewer. Lawrence rarely made preliminary sketches, instead beginning by drawing the head from life directly onto the canvas before painting. This unfinished work was made using this technique: by the third or fourth sitting, the face and body are almost finished but the child’s cap and the lower part of the canvas are still to be filled in.

Private Collection, courtesy of Patrick Bourne & Co., London

Portrait of the Children of Lord George Cavendish (1754–1834)
CC BY-SA 4.0 Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Portrait of the Children of Lord George Cavendish (1754–1834)

Oil on canvas, 1790
198.2 x 147.5 cm

Lawrence departs from the conventions of child portraiture in this work: rather than showing the boys as future generals following in the footsteps of their father, a high-ranking aristocratic officer, the children are instead shown playing together on the outskirts of a forest. Lawrence belonged to the second generation of artists to depict childhood as a condition to be cherished and set apart, and who delighted in emphasising the unique characteristics of the young with an appealing combination of sentiment and honesty.

Städel Museum, Frankfurt. On permanent loan from Adolf und Luisa Haeuser-Stiftung für Kunst und Kulturpflege since 2002

Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton (1783–1795)
Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, USA© Huntington Art Collections /© Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanitcal Gardens/Bridgeman Images

Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton (1783–1795)

Oil on canvas, 1794
148 × 102.2 cm

The sitter’s grandmother in the Caribbean commissioned this full-length portrait as a substitute for the child, who had arrived in London in 1792 from Jamaica where her father was a slave factor. Lacking a sense of innocence found in Lawrence’s other child portraits, there is something nervous and almost hostile about the eleven-year-old’s bold stare and flared nostrils. At the same time she seems vulnerable; in its white muslin, her body has a cloud-like lightness and appears ready to float away or dissolve.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino

William Linley (1771–1835)
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

William Linley (1771–1835)

Oil on canvas, 1789
76.2 x 63.5 cm

In his portraits of young men, Lawrence helps his sitters to advance the process – begun in childhood – of becoming gentlemen. This portrait was made sometime between Linley (the younger son of a famous Bath family of musicians) leaving school and his departure for civil service in the East India Company. He is presented as neither fully a child nor adult: his hair is still cut in the smooth fringe of a schoolboy, while a wisp of hair escapes across his pink cheek.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Unfinished Portrait of Arthur Atherley (1772–1844)
©The Holburne Museum

Unfinished Portrait of Arthur Atherley (1772–1844)

Oil on canvas, 1791
62.2 x 50.8 cm

Lawrence’s portrait of Arthur Atherley exists in two versions, this unfinished head-and-shoulders and a striking three-quarter-length exhibition piece exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1792. When Lawrence began this work he was just three years older than the nineteen-year-old sitter, who had recently left Eton College. The unfinished, apparently abandoned, canvas shows the first stage in the process of composition, placing the head in the canvas and experimenting with colour; the pale ground still holds traces of Lawrence’s initial drawing.

The Holburne Museum, Bath. Acquired with support from the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and donations from Friends, Patrons and visitors of the Holburne, 2016

Portrait of Arthur Atherley as an Etonian
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Portrait of Arthur Atherley as an Etonian

Oil on canvas, 1791–2
125.7 x 100.3 cm

A comparison between this and the unfinished version shows how Lawrence used the same likeness to create very different impressions: one of intimacy and innocence, the other of distance and worldliness. Through simple changes, Lawrence transformed the half-formed schoolboy into an impressive young man. Here, the format has been extended, showing the sitter striding through a landscape whose low horizon allows him to tower above the meadows of Eton. The rich red coat breathes vitality into the whole portrait and is designed for maximum impact on the overcrowded walls at the 1792 exhibition.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. Gift of Hearst Magazines

Gipsy Girl
©Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: Prudence Cuming

A Gipsy Girl

Oil on canvas, 1794
91.5 x 71.1 cm

Lawrence submitted this work to the Royal Academy to mark his election to full membership at the age of twenty-five. An imaginary subject that uses the format of a half-length portrait, the painting demonstrates his gift for depicting all the energy and ambiguity of youth. Both child and adult, this figure could be seen equally as a criminal or a scapegoat: the hen clutched to her breast, innocent victim of a dishonest thief, is about to become supper for a family suffering in an increasingly unjust rural Britain.

Royal Academy of Arts, London

Learning Activities

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Find out more about Thomas Lawrence, draw a portrait yourself and help decorate his sitting room.

Spot the difference

Lawrence - Spot the Difference

Can you spot the differences between the two versions of Thomas Lawrences’s Unfinished Portrait of Arthur Atherley.

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Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
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Supported by the Tavolozza Foundation

Video introduction
filmed and edited by
Tom Stafford-Hughes

Ben Elwes - Fine Art