Sir Thomas Lawrence and the Duke of Wellington: A Portraitist and His Sitter

By Jenkins, Susan | British Art Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Sir Thomas Lawrence and the Duke of Wellington: A Portraitist and His Sitter


Jenkins, Susan, British Art Journal


Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) recorded his first impressions of the Duke of Wellington in a letter dated 7 August 1812 to his friend, the painter and diarist, Joseph Farington (1747-1821): 'He writes rapidly like a soldier and a Man of Business, who has something better to do than to attend to the cut of a phrase.' (1) Indeed, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), was a man of forthright views who did not mince his words when it came to his dislike of sitting to portrait painters. In July 1834, he refused to sit to Lawrence's assistant, the picture restorer and painter John Simpson (1782-1847), complaining:

   I have not promised to sit for less than a score of portraits. No
   Portrait Painter will copy the picture of another nor paint an
   original under from 15 to 20 sittings, and thus I am expected to
   give not less than 400 sittings to a Portrait Painter in addition
   to all the other matters I must attend to, and in addition to the
   reception of and answers to such applications. A l'impossible
   personne n'est tenu' and I must plead the truth of that Proverb.
   (2)

Apart from his evident belief that he was wasting his time by sitting for his portrait, the Duke of Wellington was perhaps less willing than other great men to take an active role in fashioning his image for posterity. However, it seems that his great rival, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), who apparently enjoyed commissioning busts and paintings of himself from sculptors and artists, also occasionally experienced a similar irritation. According to one source, when faced with sitting to the great Roman sculptor, Antonio Canova, (1757-1822) Napoleon apparently shrugged and muttered: 'Encore poser! Mon dieu, que gela est ennuyeux!' (3)

Sir Thomas Lawrence cannot have been completely unaware of the Duke of Wellington's contempt for the artistic profession, but both men, who were exact contemporaries, clearly respected each other and cooperated on the European stage in the years after the battle of Waterloo. It was fortunate for both of them that Lawrence reached the height of his powers as an artist, just as Wellington attained the pinnacle of his military glory. Lawrence's portraits of England's great general are amongst the most heroic and charismatic images of the 'Iron Duke' and help to enhance the romantic image of this supreme military commander. As Benjamin West (1738-1820), artist and President of the Royal Academy from 1792, enjoined: 'Do not confound [Lawrence's] pictures with mere portraits: painted as his are, they cease to be portraits in the ordinary sense; they rise to the dignity of history, and like similar works by Titian and Vandyke, they may be said to be painted not alone to gratify friends and admirers in the present day, but rather for posterity.' (4)

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769, the son of a bankrupted inn-keeper, who ran the Black Bear Inn in Devizes. He was a child prodigy, a self-taught artist, whose early talent in drawing portraits helped provide the family with an income. (5) In 1787, when he was only eighteen, Lawrence exhibited seven works at the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London and was subsequently invited to study in the studio of its President, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). In 1792, at the age of twenty-three, Lawrence was appointed Reynolds' successor as Painter-in-Ordinary to George III, and rose to become President of the Royal Academy himself in 1820.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Lawrence was not only celebrated for his virtuosity and handling of paint, but he was also renowned for his polished and charming manners, which other artists claimed led him to paint portraits that flattered his sitters. The Scottish artist Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841), for instance, accused him of taking 'liberties' in 'changing and refining the features before him'. (6) Both Lawrence's manners and his flattering portraits would have recommended him to the art-and-pleasure-loving Prince Regent, the future George IV, to whom he was introduced in 1814 and by whom he was knighted in April 1815. …

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