A Coloured Canvas, Lives, loves and losses in the artistic heart of Regency England
This is a novel about Sir Thomas Lawrence but, as the sub-title suggests, it is much more than a biography of the 18th/ 19th century portrait painter who was only six when he started impressing patrons at his father’s Black Bear Inn by sketching their pictures. The story is full of engaging characters and is told with humour and insight into the world of Regency Bath and London in the years from the American and French Revolutions, through the Napoleonic Wars and the accession of George IV to the coming of the railway, but it touches also on some of the political events and personalities of the era.
All sorts of people stopped at the Black Bear on their way from London to Bath, among them actors including David Garrick and, perhaps, the young Sarah Siddons, as yet unknown but on her way to becoming the leading tragedienne of the period. Did he draw her likeness then? Did she recognise in the boy and herself potentials for greatness? Was that the beginning of the long and tempestuous relationship between the renowned artist and the Siddons family?
Using extensive research into letters, newspapers and comment of the time, I explored the influence his father and many close friends exerted on Lawrence’s career as it developed from West country sketcher to portraitist of Kings and Queens, Popes and Emperors, Prime Ministers, distinguished ladies, diplomats and sportsmen. I singled out some of his subjects for their particularly intriguing stories. Among those are the beautiful but confused Mr Bell, the unprepossessing but clever Irish politician, Mr Curran, the irascible artist, Henry Fuseli, neither rival nor admirer. Children and their pets were particular favourites as of course were members of the Siddons/ Kemble family.
Every year from 1789 when he was twenty, his work was to be seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition. His best known studies though not always his best liked were ‘Pinky’, a wintry portrait of Miss Elizabeth Farren and the gigantic ‘Satan’ in which he blended the most imposing features of two friends: the handsome head of actor John Philip Kemble and the powerful body of champion boxer ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson.
The distinguished career was not without its problems. Despite his huge output and ever-increasing income, he was never out of debt and yet he was known to be far from profligate in his personal life. His family, which he supported, not unwillingly, for most of his life, was a financial burden; he spent, often unwisely, on works of art and the latest domestic innovations like a plumbed (but cold water) bath. His friends and advisers, Joseph Farington and John Julius Angerstein helped him organize his budget and kept him out of the bankruptcy court.
And throughout his life at all its stages, Sarah Siddons, her actor brothers Kemble, her husband-manager William who disliked and disapproved of Thomas, and above all her two daughters, sweet Sally and selfish Maria, contenders for his love in their different ways. An intense, difficult triangle that drove him to the brink of madness—or was it a quadrangle? Lawrence was to live out his life as a bachelor, his name, probably but not certainly, platonically linked with several women. His friendship with Sarah Siddons diminished but endured till his death at the age of 60 in 1830.
Note: A Coloured Canvas is available on both Google Books and Amazon. Corille was born in Scotland, lives in Australia and has a background in theatre and radio. You can visit her website here.
Sarah Biffen (1784-1850) was born without arms or legs, a condition known as phocomelia, and survived infancy only by the intervention of a clergyman who protected her. In her family she was known as a pixie child, and she was even feared by some in her West Country village.
At age 12, Sarah became a phenomenon at circuses and fairs, displayed painting or sewing with her teeth and was known as “The Limbless Wonder.” A few years later, the Earl of Morton arranged for her to study with William Craig, a Royal Academician who was also drawing master to Princess Charlotte of Wales.
She became a professional miniaturist and did work for George IV, William IV, and Queen Victoria. She is mentioned in novels by William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, and her paintings were accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy. She received a silver medal from the Society of Arts in 1821.
This is a miniature of Edward, Duke of Kent (1767-1820), a waterclour on ivory, painted by Sarah Biffen in 1839 and purchased by the Duke’s daughter, Queen Victoria. It is part of the Royal Collection.
Sarah married William S. Wright in 1824, but the marriage was unsuccessful. After she moved to Liverpool, her work gradually went out of fashion and her ability to paint faded as well. Obviously the incredible muscle control in her mouth and neck would have been reduced as she aged. She was supported in her last years by a pension from the Queen and funds donated by her friends and colleagues.
In the words of the National Gallery of Scotland’s description of her self-portrait, “This remarkable self-portrait reveals something of Sarah’s dignity and strong character, as well as showing the determination and skill of a woman who rose from being a side-show exhibit to a celebrated royal portrait painter.”
One of my favourite painters is Edwin Landseer, who will always be associated with his Scottish paintings featuring wild landscapes and majestic deer, such as the Monarch of the Glen, pictured above, painted following a visit to the Highlands of Scotland in 1824. So inspired was he, and so taken by the wild Scottish landscape and people, that Landseer continued to visit Scotland every autumn for many years thereafter.
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873), was an English painter, born the third son of John Landseer, A.R.A., a well-known engraver and writer on art. He was born at 71 Queen Anne Street East (afterwards 33 Foley Street), London, on March 7th 1802. His mother was Miss Potts, who sat to Sir Joshua Reynolds as the reaper with a sheaf of corn on her head, in “Macklin’s Family Picture,” or “The Gleaners.” So you might say that when it came to art, Edwin was ‘born to it.’
In 1815 Landseer began studying with the history painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, and in the following year he entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of fourteen. Landseer had a gift for painting animals, either as animals, or as animals in human attitudes, as in his Laying down the Law, shown here. Landseer was inspired to paint it after seeing Count d’Orsay’s French poodle, Montaigne, resting on the table. At the time, Lord Lyndhurst — who had held the Seals before, and would hold them again — remarked, “What a capital Lord Chancellor!” prompting Landseer to dash off the painting. At the request of the Duke of Devonshire, whose property it became, the artist afterwards introduced his Grace’s Blenheim spaniel just above the highly-bred greyhound. The painting now hangs in the visitor’s entrance Hall at Chatsworth House, while a sketch of Montaigne that Landseer had done for the painting was part of the contents of the Blessington/D’Orsay auction held in Spring of 1849 at Gore House when the couple fled to France to avoid their creditors, a la Brummell.
Another of Landseer’s famous canine portraits, and a personal favourite, is that of Eos, Prince Albert’s favourite greyhound, which he painted at the request of Queen Victoria, who gifted her husband with the painting. The Queen wished the Prince’s hat and gloves to be introduced into the composition, and sent them to Landseer’s studio for this purpose.
However, another favorite has always been the evocative 1837 painting titled, “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” seen below. I found a color print in a magazine years ago, cut it out, framed it and have had it on my wall ever since. It’s so poignant, so heart tugging that you can really only look at it when you’re in a good mood. Gaze upon it when you’re even quasi in the dumps and you’re a goner.
The sense of pathos in this work is almost painful to behold. Beyond the pitiable dog, there is little to see in the scene – a room with a hard packed dirt floor, plaster, or daub, falling from the dingy walls, a discarded walking stick and hat and a bible. Though there are a simple wooden chair and a three-legged stool, the main piece of furniture in the scene, of course, is the coffin. With these few props – and the dog’s pose – Landseer managed to eloquently convey the life of the Old Shepherd and the sort of man the Old Shepherd must have been. Everyone who looks upon the scene will, quite naturally, form their own opinions on this. In my mind, I see the Old Shepherd as a loner, perhaps uncomfortable in the company of others. Making monthly trips to town for supplies, he spent his days in the company of his sheep and his faithful companion, his nights looking out at the distant mountains and stars or in reading his bible. Perhaps he indulged in the occasional wee dram of whisky and a pipe. However, the Old Shepherd must have possessed at least one good relative, neighbor or friend, for to me the soft woolen blanket that has been draped over the coffin and on which the dog rests his head seems too fine, and too clean, to have belonged to the Old Shepherd himself. How long had the Old Shepherd lain ill in his cottage before he had been discovered and someone had brought him food, water, a kind word and the blanket? Now that the Old Shepherd is gone and it has become apparent that the dog will not leave his side, this same someone has draped the blanket on the coffin for the sorrowing dog to rest his chin upon. In my personal imaginings, this same kind someone will take the dog home with them once the Old Shepherd has been buried and the dog will be grateful, but will ever after miss the company of the one who had loved him so singularly and so well.
To evoke such thoughts and feelings in the viewer was one of Landseer’s greatest talents. Praise for Landseer is and was unanimous, with he and Stubbs still standing as the greatest English animal painters of all time, yet Landseer had no talent for business. It was his art patron and personal friend, Jacob Bell, who took Landseer in hand and arranged for him to put realistic prices on his paintings. Previously, Landseer had consistently undervalued his own work, a fact which benefited Bell early on as a collector. However, having purchased eighteen Landseer paintings, Bell left them all to the nation upon his death, including Dignity and Impudence, above, one of Landseer’s best known works. Another patron who benefited early on was John Sheepshanks, son of a wealthy Leeds clothier who became one of the age’s leading art collectors. He purchased the above mentioned The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner for a “ludicrously small” price, according to W.P. Frith. Thankfully, Sheepshanks also left his collection of art to the nation and The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner now hangs in the V&A for all to see.
Bell and Sheepshanks had both inherited huge sums from their industrialist fathers, allowing them to buy and grow art collections by several contemporary painters. Their wealth also allowed them to socialize with the aristocracy and Landseer, by proxy, was given entree to that world early on, before his talent would no doubt have eventually opened some of the same doors.
By 1835, Landseer could boast some very important people amongst his clients, including the Dukes of Aberdeen, Argyll, Atholl, Devonshire and Wellington, but life changed significantly for Landseer the next year, after he was commissioned by the Duchess of Kent to paint a portrait of Dash, her daughter, the future Queen Victoria’s, King Charles Spaniel, which pleased Victoria greatly. Just months afterwards, Victoria took the throne and commissioned Landseer to paint a further portrait for her. She wrote in her diary: “Saw Lord Conyngham and Edwin Landseer, who brought a beautiful little sketch which he has done this morning, of a picture he is to paint for me of Hector and Dash. He is an unassuming, pleasing and very good-looking man, with fair hair.” Landseer must, indeed, have been pleasing to the new Queen, as she would go on to commission many further paintings and portraits from him, to invite him to stay at Windsor, at Osborne and in the Highlands and remained, to the last, one of Landseer’s most loyal patrons and his friend.
In addition to acting as friend to both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Landseer also taught them both to draw and, further, to engrave. His elder brother, Tom, was a well known engraver, as was their father, and with Tom’s help, and that of Henry Graves, the Royal couple were taught to engrave and press prints of their own making on a press set up in Buckingham Palace for just this purpose.
Landseer will always be thought of as a masterly painter of dogs, stags and, much later, lions, but it is by his dogs that he is most remembered. His own dog, Brutus, was a model for many of his early dog portraits, followed by Lassie, a Scottish sheepdog and a pedigreed pooch called Breechin. Landseer owned dogs, and gained fame by painting dogs, which led people to believe that he had some special, uncanny connection to dogs, which prompted friends, and even strangers, to write to him for advice concerning their own problem pooches. Eventually, Landseer’s connection to dogs began to work against him, as critics began to complain that his later canine portraits were overly coy and/or sentimental. Landseer went from painting studies like The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner or even Eos, to endowing the dogs he put on canvas with overtly human expressions or attitudes. In Laying Down the Law, mentioned above, Landseer inserted the Duke of Devonshire’s spaniel into the finished picture at the Duke’s request. Some say that the inclusion ruined the symmetry of the composition. Regardless, such was the fate of an artist whose chief source of income were the commissions he received from wealthy and aristocratic clients who clamored to have their pets memorialized by the great man himself. Landseer continued to paint other subjects and to show them at the Royal Academy, but this may be where the rot began to seep in – more and more, Landseer began to doubt his own abilities, he became less sure of himself and often gave in to bouts of melancholy and drink. More frequently than not, he began to put off beginning a commissioned work and to miss promised deadlines, even though he was renowned for being able to deliver fully realized paintings in record time. The head of Odin took him two hours, to complete and Landseer tossed off Rabbits in three quarters of an hour.
Queen Victoria had offered Landseer a knighthood in 1842, which he humbly refused to accept until 1850. That same year, he was still taking canine commissions from the Queen and it was also the first year that he was invited to stay at Balmoral and to bring with him “his drawing materials.” In this same year, Landseer’s contribution to the Royal Academy show as his Dialogue at Waterloo, commissioned by his patron Robert Vernon for the princely sum of three thousand pounds. The outsized picture (six feet by 12 feet in size) was produced by Landseer in response to Vernon’s request for a Waterloo painting. Vernon had made much of his fortune by supplying horses to the military and he was also an admirer of the Duke of Wellington. However, Landseer knew full well that his strengths as an artist did not translate to full blown battle scenes. Instead, he portrayed the elderly Wellington revisiting the field at Waterloo on horseback, accompanied by his daughter-in-law, the Marchioness of Douro – a nice sentiment, however the scene never actually took place outside of Landseer’s creative imagination. Regardless, the subsequent engraving sold extremely well.
Increasingly, Landseer suffered bouts of melancholia, causing him to isolate himself within his home in St. John’s Wood and to turn to alcohol and drugs for relief. Despite this, Landseer enjoyed popularity throughout the Victorian era and, although he had no previous experience as a sculptor, in 1859 Landseer was commissioned by the government to make the four huge bronze lions for the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. It took him eight years to complete the work. Lions were not a new animal for Landseer – he had been given the carcass of a Regent’s Park zoo lion by it’s keeper after it had died of old age in 1848. After 1859, Landseer managed to acquire another elderly lion, still living, which he kept in his garden. He also made visits to the Regent’s Park zoo to study their still living lions. Landseer completed other works over the course of the eight years, in between bouts of melancholy, but once again, he stalled for time on the most important work in progress. Finally, the clay models were completed and were cast in bronze by Baron Marochetti, whose experience to that point had largely been confined to casting large equestrian statues for public spaces. The lions were put in place and unveiled in Trafalgar Square on 25 January, 1867.
To this day, rumours persist that Landseer’s lions are not anatomically correct and that, unable to secure an actual lion as model, Landseer instead used a common variety house cat as his study. The facts prove this to be untrue. In actual fact, though Landseer had models to hand, he was most likely unable to bestir himself to make use of them. As with his Dialogue at Waterloo, he solved the problem in the end by using a sort of “bait and switch” tactic – the Art-Journal got right to the heart of the matter: “it appears that one body only has been modelled, while two heads were made, each of which served for two bodies. Thus the same body was cast in bronze four times, and the heads twice each.” Another reason for the persistence of the cat rumour can be traced back to early complaints that resting lions do not place their paws flat on the ground, as house cats do, but instead have them angled inwards. Despite The Illustrated London News having published photographs showing zoo lions with their paws in both positions, the rumours refuse to die.
The lion debate could not have done anything to soothe Landseer’s nerves and his mental health deteriorated further and he isolated himself further from both friends and the art world. When his drinking was worst, Landseer’s elder brother, Charles, sent him to a home in Surrey, to dry out. and confided to his friend, T.S. Cooper, that Landseer was a perfect wreck and suffering from the D. T.s. Still, Cooper was shocked by what he found when he visited Landseer and realized that Charles had not been exaggerating the artist’s condition. However, Landseer had not lost his skill. As Lord Frederick Hamilton recalled: “On another occasion there was some talk about a savage bull. Landseer, muttering ‘Bulls, bulls, bulls,’ snatched up an album of my sister’s and finding a blank page in it made exquisite little drawings of a charging bull. The disordered brain repeating, ‘Bulls, bulls, bulls,’ he then drew a bulldog, a pair of bullfinches surrounded by bullrushes and a hooked bull trout fighting furiously for freedom. That page has been cut out and framed . . . ”
In 1872, Landseer’s health had broken down to the point where his family had him certified as insane and he died the following year. The Times wrote: ‘Sir Edwin has been long known to be in a most precarious state of health but the news will not the less shock and grieve the worlds of both art and Society in which he was an equal favourite.’ Landseer was buried with full honours in St Paul’s Cathedral and his lions guarding Nelson’s Column were hung with black wreaths.
Now for a closer look at this National Portrait Gallery retrospective… There are some surprising portraits here, not the least the paintings of the Waterloo generals, Wellington, et al., and an amazing capture on canvas of the saintly William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery crusader. But although it is the beautiful, sensually painted women who draw the eye, it is the eye-stopping portrait of a young man who may hold a clue to the centuries-old puzzle of Thomas Lawrence’s sexuality.
In her review of the National Portrait Gallery exhibit in The Observer (October 24th, 2010), Laura Cumming asks the viewer to “consider Lord Mountstuart of Bute in Spanish costume, his manhood barely concealed in skin-tight trousers. Silhouetted against a stormy sunset in his Byronic black cloak (Lawrence arguably pioneered the look, Byron was only seven at this time), Mountstuart treads upon the toy landscape below. His body is wildly elongated, his face more or less Hispanicised and yet all these implausibilities are somehow swept aside by the sensuous conviction of the paint.”
That depiction of the young lord’s “manhood” caused quite a stir at the time. Lawrence thrusts Mountstuart’s thrusting hips and bulging thighs, encased in skin-tight trousers, right into the viewer’s face. It’s not subtle, not by any means, and this reproduction hardly does it justice, for seeing it up close and personal is an entirely different experience, one that stops the viewer dead in his tracks, and my feeling is that it is intentional, that Lawrence wanted the viewer’s face rubbed into that young buck’s manhood.
Or was it his own face that he wanted to rub into Mountstuart’s crotch? It’s unsettling. And it’s also revealing that the 1923 Grieg edition of Farington’s diaries censures what Farington said about this portrait in May of 1794. Luckily, the editors of the Yale edition had no such qualms.
Farington wrote in his diary on the 5th of May, 1795, that King George III “started back with disgust” when he saw the portrait on display at the Royal Academy exhibition for that year. From the exhibition catalog (edited by A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz), a comment and quote from an early 19th century book of anecdotes has more to say on this painting: The unbridled sexuality of this portrait, led another critic to sarcasm: ‘We wish he had been a Bishop, as then his Cassoc [sic] might hide those eccentricities…at which delicacy must blush, and modesty turn aside.”
The editors kindly enlarge that part of the portrait — “those eccentricities” in question — for the further edification of the reader on page 124 of the catalogue. Pretty blatant, this, and, to me, it’s significant that Lawrence was never so blatant in his painting of dashing young trousered men again.
In Lawrence’s later years one woman in particular appeared to provide him with companionship, Isabella Wolff, who first met him when she sat for her portrait in 1803. Isabella was the daughter of Norton Hutchinson, a prominent East India trader and the estranged wife of Jens Wolff. A merchant, shipbroker, merchant, and collector who served as the Danish Consul, Jens Wolff was of Anglo-Danish heritage.
The couple had separated after 18 years of marriage and had one son, Herman St. John Wolff, who may have been born any time between 1810 and 1814 (or perhaps before those dates). The lack of certainty as to the correct birth date of Herman Wolff has led to speculation that he was the son of Isabella and Thomas Lawrence. Is there anything to back this up? Lawrence did appear to be fond of the boy and went on trips to the continent with him, but is that enough to make a case for paternity? It is also possible that Herman was Wolff’s son by another woman, not his wife Isabella. The jury is still out on this one.
Lawrence and Isabella Wolff knew each other for at least twenty-six years. She’d sat for a portrait in 1803, while she was still married to Jens Wolff, and they’d become close, even intimate, friends. Indeed, the artist John Constable, writing to his wife in 1824, simply stated what was being said at the time in London art circles: “A Mrs. Wolfe came in the evening. She is very pretty; & talks incessantly of all the arts & sciences… She is quite an intimate of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who has often drawn her. Her husband, from whom she is parted, in the Danish consul & in every sense of the world a Wolfe.”
Very odd, that comment, that Jens Wolff is “in every sense of the world a Wolfe,” because there was gossip in a newspaper, the Literary Gazette, very shortly after Lawrence’s death that he had been involved with a “Mrs. W, the wife of a foreign minister, whose brutal treatment [had thrown] her upon the protection of Sir T. Lawrence.” Had Jens Wolff been a wife beater? Was that what Constable was alluding to?
They were definitely close, as evidenced by this letter to her that survives, written from Rome in late June of 1819, when Isabella was about 50 and Lawrence only a couple of years older. He wrote:
My Bed Room Window is so small that only one Person can conveniently look out of it, but it looks over the Pope’s garden and St. Peters, Monte Mario &c., and as sweet Even’g closes I often squeeze you into it tho’ it does hurt you a little by holding your arms so closely within mine.
It reads real. Real and affectionate. This is not the Lawrence so many described as a manipulative social climber, overly charming, out to seduce by the sweetness of his words and the timbre of his voice. Isabella Wolff and Lawrence were definitely close, but how close is still a matter for conjecture. The bulk of their correspondence, unfortunately, was apparently censured both by his first biographer and by Lawrence’s relatives. Richard Holmes, however, dismissed her role in the painter’s life as simply “maternal.”
Contemporaries agree that Isabella Wolff was a great source of inspiration for him; she seemed to serve him as a beloved muse. (As perhaps, Sarah Siddons had, so many years before?) The portrait above was one that Lawrence could not seem to give up. He worked on it for over twelve years. (He also drew her many times.) At the Royal Academy exhibit in 1815, this portrait held pride of place. It was his only painting at that exhibition of a female subject.
The philosopher and critic William Hazlitt called it “a chef d’oeuvre of style…enough to make the Ladies vow that they will never again look at themselves in their glasses, but only in his Canvasses.” The critical reaction at the time to the portrait of Isabella Wolff was uniformly positive.
Mrs. Wolff’s is a classical pose, Grecian inspired, and, indeed, she is shown studying a book open to an image of the Delphic Sibyl. There is something of the Greek priestess in her attitude, with her hand on her head, and critics have suggested that being cast as a sibyl, as one of those priestesses who looked into the future and passed judgments, may fit with the role she played as mentor and muse in Lawrence’s life. It is an eye-catching portrait fraught with feeling.
Isabella Wolff died in 1829; Thomas Lawrence died unexpectedly – he had not been ill — very soon thereafter, in 1830. Whether or not their relationship was sexual in nature – whether they might have had a child together – whether he was heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual — is irrelevant to the obvious closeness of their friendship. I would not hesitate to say she most probably meant a great deal to him and that the shock of her death no doubt hastened his demise. And that, at the end, is what is important, that his life, as it neared its end, at long last, did have what anyone would not hesitate to call love. It was surely about time.
Lawrence achieved a knighthood in the spring of 1815, thanks to Prinny’s patronage, and was sent by him to the continent to paint portraits of the heroes and distinguished others of the recent battle of Waterloo – which greatly enhanced his prestige and stature amongst his fellow artists — and he became president of the officially-sanctioned society of artists, the Royal Academy, in 1820, when Prinny ascended to the throne. (The artist arrived back in London in March of 1820 to find that he had succeeded Benjamin West.) Lawrence’s reign as head of the RA was to last only ten years, however; he passed away in 1830, only sixty years old, at the height of his powers.
Like a number of other 18th-century artists, Lawrence’s popularity waned during the Victorian era, but his reputation has revived in the 20th century. The lack of public access to most of his work might have been one of the reasons for his lack of recognition. Nonetheless, several striking portraits have since firmed up his reputation. One of them is of the actress Elizabeth Farren (a full-length portrait in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, seen below). Farren was a cold and calculating woman of low origins who parlayed her looks and popularity as an actress into aristocratic gold, snagging the wealthy Earl of Derby as her prize. The portrait is stunning; it’s difficult to take one’s eyes away from the tall, willowy woman commanding the space on that canvas.
Arguably his most famous portrait – in terms of recognition by the general art-loving public – is probably the one dubbed Pinkie, which, along with Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, has been much reproduced. (Indeed, they could be veritable bookends, that boy in blue, this girl in pink.) The iconic portrait of this young girl, Sarah Barrett Moulton, was painted in 1794, when Lawrence was in his mid-thirties.
Lawrence was a wonderful painter of very small children as well as of adolescents like Sarah Moulton. One painting many people recognize – though they probably would not be able to identify the artist – is The Calmady Children, painted in 1823, seven years before his death. A charming image much reproduced in greeting cards, it is in this current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.