My Daily Art Display looks at a work by one of the greatest English portrait painters. His name was Thomas Lawrence, later to become Sir Thomas Lawrence. He was born in Bristol in 1769. His father, also called Thomas, was a supervisor of excise and his mother Lucy was the daughter of a clergyman. His mother had an amazing number of children – sixteen in all, albeit only five survived infancy. It was around the time that Thomas was born that his father decided to give up his government job and become an innkeeper. The initial move into running an inn failed and when Thomas was four years of age his father moved the whole family to the Wiltshire market town of Devizes and tried again at being a successful landlord of an inn. The inn named the Black Bear was on the main route between London and Bath and was ideally situated to catch the London gentry who were on route to Bath in order to take the healing waters.
The father’s business acumen was lacking and he soon ran into debt and it was left to young Thomas to help with the family finances by selling his pastel portraits. When Thomas was ten, his father was declared bankrupt and the family moved to Bath. There was now more pressure on the young boy to stabilise the family’s finances through the sale of his portraits. He concentrated on oval portraits measuring 3ocms x 25cm and he was able to charge three guineas for each half length portrait. In 1787 Thomas Lawrence moved to London and in a very short time established his reputation as a portrait painter in oils. It was primarily the portraiture of Britain’s growing aristocracy which was in great demand and Lawrence was able to command high fees for his work and it was into this aristocratic world that Lawrence was accepted. In 1790, he received his first royal commission when he was asked to paint a portrait of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. The following year, aged just twenty two, he became an associate of the Royal Academy and three years later a full member of that society. In 1792, Sir Joshua Reynolds the great English portrait artist, friend and mentor to Thomas Lawrence, died and this opened royal doors for his protégé. George III, who had been delighted with Lawrence’s portrait of his wife, Queen Charlotte, appointed Thomas Lawrence as the Principal Court painter. He retained that position under the monarchy of George IV. Lawrence was knighted in 1815 and five years later became the President of the Royal Academy.
So business was good for Lawrence the sale of his portraits went well and he could command higher and higher fees for the commissions he received and so he was rich. Well, in fact no, he wasn’t wealthy and on a number of occasions was nearly bankrupt and only staved off financial disaster with help from friends and patrons. So where did all the money go? Lawrence was bemused by his lack of money, commenting:
“…I have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money. Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it from me…”
Many biographers have sought the reason for his financial mess and it is now generally accepted that Thomas Lawrence could not handle his finances, rarely kept accounts and he spent a lot of money building up a collection of Old Master drawings. He was also very generous when it came to his family – probably too generous.
Apart from financial problems he was also very unlucky in love. He had come in contact with the well-known London stage actress Sarah Siddons and he became entangled with her two daughters, Maria and Sally. He fell in love first with Sally, then transferred his affections on to her sister Maria, then broke with Maria and turned back to Sally again. Both the sisters had fragile health; Maria died in 1798, on her deathbed extracting a promise from her sister never to marry Lawrence. Sally kept her promise and refused to see Lawrence again, dying in 1803. But Lawrence continued on friendly terms with their mother and painted several portraits of her. Lawrence never married. Sir Thomas Lawrence died in 1830, aged 60 and was the most fashionable portrait painter in Europe
My Daily Art Display today is a delightful portrait which Sir Thomas Lawrence completed in 1826, entitled Miss Murray, which can be found at Kenwood House in London. It is an unusual portrait considering the wealthy and famous people he had painted. The painting was commissioned by Sir George Murray, the Scottish soldier and politician, who fought with General Wellington in the Peninsular Wars. Louise Georgina Murray was his daughter and was also the goddaughter of the Duke of Wellington. The young girl dances towards us beribboned and utterly bewitching. She reminds me of the very young girls we see in present day American child beauty pageants, all dressed up adult-like, performing little dances for their doting audience. She is just like Shirley Temple. We seem to be looking up at her from below as if she is performing her dance on a stage and we are merely part of her audience. Lawrence has undoubtedly captured the little girl’s beauty whilst she was still young. Lawrence realised that his portrait had in some ways captured a certain moment in her life, a moment of child-like innocence and beauty which would undoubtedly change. He commented on this very fact to her father, writing:
“…All I can do will be to snatch this fleeting beauty and expression so singular in the child before the change takes place that some few months may bring…”
How many times have we looked back on our children’s photographs when they were young and wondered how things change so much over time? Lawrence and undoubtedly Sir George Murray knew that the sweet innocence of the child as she proudly shows off her dress and performs her dance would inevitably change.
So what of little Miss Murray, what became of her? In 1843, aged twenty-one, she married Captain Henry George Boyce, a grandson of the 1st Duke of Marlborough who sadly died in Rome, five years after they were married. Louisa Georgina Augusta Anne Murray remained a widow for forty three years, dying in 1891 in the Italian coastal town of Bordighera.
As I said at the start of this blog, the painting can be found in Kenwood House, London which I believe is near to Hampstead Heath. I have never been there and thus have never stood in front of the painting but when I was researching the work I came across two “versions” of the painting, the one you see at the begining, with the girl looking slightly to her left and the sprig of flowers on the floor on the left side of the painting and the other picture of the painting (on the right) I came across in another art history book which had the girl turning slightly to her right and the flowers were on the floor to the right of the painting. One book must have had a mirror-image of the real painting but which is correct? Next time you visit the gallery please let me know !