On this day, the anniversary of the death of artist Sir Thomas Lawrence RA in 1830,  we begin a series by guest blogger Jo Manning that originally appeared in 2010 entitlted –

The Wretched Love Life of Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), extraordinary painter, elusive personality…


Master Lawrence takes very striking likenesses of ladies and gentlemen

for a charge of one guinea for an oval crayon. —Bath Chronicle, 1782

There is an exhibition currently at the National Portrait Gallery in London: Thomas Lawrence, Regency Power and Brilliance. Only 54 paintings, but they are choice. Most of his work is held privately and several of the paintings in this exhibition are lent by owners who prefer to remain anonymous. (I met such an owner – his painting is not in this show – when researching My Lady Scandalous; he kindly allowed me to use a Lawrence painting on the condition that I not identify him.)

Actress Sarah Siddons by J. Dickinson

I came across the name of Thomas Lawrence for the second time when I was researching the life of Anna Foldsone (sometimes spelled Foldstone or Foltson, but later known as Anne Mee), a talented miniaturist, for a possible collective biography (tentatively titled Artists In Love) of six 18th century female artists. (That project, alas, is currently hanging fire.)

Lawrence, a friend of Anna’s journeyman painter father Joseph Foldsone, was cited as one of her teachers, and, later, after the death of her father when she was a teenager, as her fiancé. Apparently, nothing happened – as nothing seemed to happen with any of Lawrence’s relationships with women – he never married — and I could find little more on the subject of him and this very lovely artist.

Anna Foldsone, shortly after what did or did not happen with Lawrence, married an Irish barrister named Joseph Mee; it was not a happy marriage and she could have been on the rebound from Lawrence. Here’s a self-portrait of her below; she was known for her glorious, thick, curly blonde hair.

Anne Mee, by Anne Mee
There was, however, a good deal of speculation on his relationships with the Siddons women, Sarah, the mother, arguably the most famous actress of the time, and her two daughters, Sally and Maria. What exactly transpired is unknown, but there was enough gossip at the time to indicate he behaved like an utter cad, first wooing Sally and then dumping her for Maria; then he dumped Maria and went back to Sally! There was also speculation he was involved with their mother Sarah. Tragically, both sisters died young, probably of consumption, Maria in 1798 and Sally in 1803. Around 1904, Oswald Knapp exploited this scandal in his biography of Lawrence, An Artist’s Love Story. For the most part, biographers of Lawrence have tended to ignore his love life, which is readily understandable because it was such a mess, but it seems to me that the time seems ripe for a full-blown, warts-and-all biography of this talented, complicated man.

What’s so interesting in this sordid story of the Siddons daughters is that Sarah Siddons reportedly stayed friendly with the artist, who went on to paint a number of portraits of her, despite his questionable behavior with the two girls. Many years later, the writer Andre Maurois weighed in on this in a novel, remarking that it was the mother Lawrence was “in thrall” to, that she, not Sally, not Maria, was the object of his heated pursuits.

After the females in the Siddons family, Lawrence’s name was most closely linked with Isabella Wolff, with whom he might have fathered a son – though I doubt it — but more about that later, when I discuss the paintings in this current exhibition.

In addition to the great mystery of his love life there was the mystery of where all his money went; he had great financial problems despite his very successful career and his estate at his death was mired in debt. The first mystery leads me to wonder if the problem was that he may have been attracted to his own gender but felt he had to play the game of pursuing women. He was unable to commit to any one woman, yet he was an odd kind of womanizer; he appeared to show great, passionate, intense interest … and then it more or less fizzled out. His behavior was strange, erratic, immature, confused. I’ve yet to find any speculation – much less evidence — that Lawrence might have been gay, but closeted gay men were not that uncommon in Georgian England. Sodomy was punishable by hanging, however, so overt behavior carried the threat of death. One painting in particular in this exhibition set me onto this course of thought.

Part Two Coming Soon!


  1. Deb – You are not alone – Jo and I saw this in London, Victoria hopes to get up to Yale to see it, too. It was just fab – my post on the exhibit runs after Jo's series.

  2. I'm very interested in this painter. I'm not into art very much but I ran across the portrait called Mrs. Jens Wolff. I'm the spittin' image of her, seriously, so I'm quite curious as to what she and the artist were like. Will keep lurking about to learn more! 😉 Thanks!

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