Thomas Lawrence at the National Portrait Gallery


It’s all about Regency Power & Brilliance if you believe the subtitle and it’s certainly the case these are pictures built on dazzling seduction. Lips glow red, eyes twinkle knowingly, young women tease and men’s trousers are barely able to contain the balls of steel needed to defeat Napoleon. Only the children ring false – all chocolate box and dull – but once they hit adulthood even the least promising candidates could be transformed.

Take Arthur Atherley. Recently out of Eton – Lawrence didn’t do ‘poor’ not even of the deserving kind – the alma mater can be seen in the background should you choose to look. But there’s no real reason why you should. Atherley clearly entranced Lawrence and the painting shows it. The gaze is piercing, the hair tossed and luxuriant and the clothes and posture cry out with longing. It’s not just the fact that it’s on the audio tour that means even a couple of centuries on people stop and stare.

Lawrence did the same with society females too. The splendidly named Rosamund Hester Elizabeth Pennell Croker who as the guide notes “was about to enter the marriage market” has the bearing and eyes of a woman who knows exactly what it will take to get and keep the right man. The years are out slightly but pretty much all the younger women look like they wouldn’t say no to a visit from Harry Flashman.

The power comes from the portraits of soldiers and as might be expected Lawrence likes a uniform, even the Pope’s. His portrait of Pius VII looks like a few other papal pictures but it still manages to bring him to vivid life. Actual soldiers look strong, determined and ruthless – and frequently out of proportion. It’s all good fun though.

There are about 50 works in the exhibition presented in broadly chronological order. Lawrence died in 1830 and the first and final rooms feature self portraits which neatly shows the artist’s transformation from young man to bald gent. He allows himself to be shown ‘as is’, something that would never do for the moneyed and powerful people whose glittering images he fixed forever.

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