As to the mystery of his debts, critics have laid Lawrence’s money problems to the demands of his large family, whom he supported. He’d supported them for a very long time, beginning at the age of 10. (He was 13 when the ad put in by his father in the Bath Chronicle ran.) His Royal Academy colleague Joseph Farington, the painter famous for his rich gossipy diary of the Georgian art world covering the years 1793 until his death in 1821, supports this widely-documented view. (Note: Yale University recently updated and enlarged the standard 1923 edition of the Farington Diary.)
Lawrence, R.A., allows his Father for the support of his family near £300 a year. He pays for his own lodgings in Bond-street 200 guineas a year. His price for his portraits is 40 guineas for a three-quarter, 80 guineas for a half-length, and 160 guineas for a whole-length. –October 28, 1793
Bear in mind that in today’s currency, we are talking some 70 to 80 times that £300. In today’s values, it’s almost $50,000+ a year, an enormous, enormous amount for those times. (A guinea = one pound and one shilling.) Lawrence’s family would have lived high off the hog indeed!
A further comment on Farington and his diaries is appropriate here. Joseph Farington (1747-1821) was an inveterate gossip and social climber who made much of his marriage to a cousin of the prestigious Walpole family. Although purporting to be a friend of many of his RA colleagues he was envious of most of them and often nasty when commenting about them in the diary he kept for many years. He played politics and was a major manipulator of the other RA members and not to be trusted. (He was, frankly, a snake.) The diary only surfaced a hundred years after his death, in 1921, when the volumes were auctioned off by his family. None of his long-deceased colleagues and those whom he called friends was privy to the intimate details in these pages.
Lawrence’s father was a failure in every business he’d attempted and, as we can see, had lived off his son’s earnings as a young artist from the time he was a mere child. But, even with having to support this family of parasites, it’s hard to imagine, with the prices Lawrence charged for a painting, that he could ever have fallen into such deep debt. On what else could he squander so much money? He lived in well-appointed homes, yet there’s no report he lived extravagantly, kept expensive mistresses, or that he gambled (the latter the downfall of many a Regency gentleman). So, on what, then, could he have spent his money?
One possibility was his ever-growing collection of Old Master paintings and sculptures. He did amass a very large collection – some 4,000 works! — as did his fellow artists Reynolds and Romney, among others, but not to the extent of his. (The collection was auctioned off at his death to pay off debts.) The possibility that intrigued me, though, was that perhaps someone was blackmailing him to keep his clandestine activities – such as a double life in London’s gay underworld — quiet.
Although there’s is no hard proof, the critic Richard Holmes, in his essay for Thomas Lawrence Portraits for the National Gallery, does suggest he was quite possibly bisexual. I do believe Lawrence was super-charged, sexually – some might say over-sexed – and if he were indeed bisexual it could explain his personality and his inability to commit to one person. His so-called friend, Farington, who called him “a male coquet,” noted he was overly intimate with his female sitters, subjecting them to long, close sittings that might not have been necessary; could he have been thus with male sitters as well? That, however, seems not to have attracted notice.
James Northcote, the pupil of Reynolds and his first biographer, made another interesting remark about Lawrence that is cited in David Piper’s The English Face (1957). Piper says, “Northcote called him ‘a sort of man-milliner painter – a meteor of fashion’.” The term “man-milliner” is 18th century slang for homosexual, and Piper goes on to say, “Northcote was biased and extremely jealous, but his criticism is not entirely unjust.”
Indeed, Lawrence’s sexuality, his possible gender confusion, could have been a destabilizing force that went on to affect all facets of his personality and may well have been connected to his monetary woes.
Leaving these speculations aside for the time being, the other references I found of note concerned the deep, often bitter rivalry between John Hoppner and Lawrence. Hoppner was a successful artist with great ambition, but he was too soon eclipsed professionally by the younger man and it did not sit well with him. (Though Hoppner was a skilled portraitist, his heart was not in painting portraits but in landscape painting. In the late Georgian era, however, painting portraits paid the bills.)
Hoppner’s most well-known portrait is probably that of Mary Robinson aka Perdita, first mistress of King George IV when he was the Prince of Wales. (The painting is now owned by the Chawton House Library.) Hoppner, whose parents were German and whose mother was in service to Queen Charlotte, had nursed the ambition of being named court painter — perhaps counting on these German connections to be appointed — but it never happened.
Farington noted that the rivalry would often revolve around petty incidents but was not the less vicious for all that. In the spring of 1801, the two artists squabbled over the placement of canvases at an RA exhibit, which resulted in Lawrence’s portrait of the Princess of Wales not being shown.
Hoppner will not exhibit on account of Lawrence monopolizing a center place by sending canvasses & figures of an uncommon size. —April 6, 1801
A dispute brought to trial in Sheriffs Court over a payment owing to Stubbs, the era’s most renowned painter of horses, from one of his patrons had Lawrence as witness on Stubbs’s side and Hoppner on the other. Farington remarked that Hoppner “was very violent against the claim of Stubbs,” but that a full judgment was made in Stubbs’s favor over his testimony. It appeared that nothing was too small over which they locked horns, such was their rabid dislike one for the other.
One almost has to feel sorry for Hoppner, for no other artist really had much of a chance against Lawrence, who, in addition to being immensely talented and personally charming, became a favorite of the royal family. The charm was innate; it was said that he had a seductive voice which he used to great effect and that he spoke in a “low, soft whisper…calculated to please.” Nancy Frazier, in the Penguin Concise Dictionary of Art History (2000), on those who were not so taken with Lawrence’s charm and even less with his talent, commented that: To some critics, he never seems to have gone beyond virtuoso flattery and an ability to give pleasure…[and that he was obsessed with] …charming his way through cosmopolitan society.
But charm worked for him. Though early in his career he’d painted a portrait of Queen Charlotte that King George III was said not to have cared much for, his son the Prince of Wales – popularly known as Prinny and later King George IV –championed him. (That George did not get along with his father also probably helped his relationship with Thomas Lawrence.)
The artist also squeaked by with another possible problem that might have affected his relation
ship with the royals. As Richard Holmes writes, “[In 1806] Lawrence is implicated in the ‘Delicate Investigation’ into alleged impropriety with the Princess of Wales [Prinny’s wife, Caroline] and has to give testimony defending his name against imputations of improper behavior.” The allegations grew out of malicious gossip from a former page at Montague House, according to the biographer Flora Fraser, during the time that Lawrence was painting Princess Caroline’s portrait.
Given his seductive approach to his sitters, however, and the natural flirtatiousness of the Princess Caroline, it’s not difficult to see how his attentions could have been misread and misunderstood. He could not, however, have been so foolish as to hit on Prinny’s wife, even given that gentleman’s abhorrence of her. He would have been signing his own death sentence.
To quote Fraser, “Lawrence stayed several nights at Montague House in the winter of 1800, so as to lose no time when Princess Charlotte [the daughter of the Prince and Princess who also sat for him] came from Shrewsbury House in the morning.” In his defense when he was accused of improper behavior, along with another man, a Captain Manby, Fraser says:
“Perceval had shown to Mr. Thomas Lawrence and to Captain Manby the examinations which incriminated them as possibly guilty of high treason. Manby and Lawrence made depositions indignantly countering the charges against them… Lawrence rebutted…testimony that he had stayed behind a locked door with the Princess. [He declared that] ‘nothing passed between her Royal Highness and myself which I could have had the least objection for all the world to have seen and heard.’ “
(Note: Perceval was Spencer Perceval, at that time attorney general, later chancellor of the exchequer, and then prime minister, who holds the not-so-wonderful distinction of having been the only prime minister ever assassinated. He was murdered in 1812; Princess Caroline underwent the humiliation of a public trial in the summer of 1820, sans Perceval.)