Magnificence at Yale Center for British Art, Part One

Words fail me (Victoria here) when I try to describe how much I enjoyed seeing Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance in New Haven CT.  Kristine wrote about the exhibition on this blog when it was in London at the National Portrait Gallery and Jo Manning did several follow-ups on Lawrence.  But it’s pretty hard to prepare oneself for standing before a larger-than-life canvas in sparkling colors and knowing there are dozens more just outside your peripheral vision. To the right, Diane Gaston and I prepare to enter the Yale Center for British Art on a bright sunny day after a long drive from Washington, DC. Many thanks to our chauffeur cum photographer, Jim Perkins, Diane’s DH.

No pictures were allowed in the exhibition, but we asked if we could take one at the entrance and they  said yes.  Behind the  entrance panel, you get a glimpse of two of the nearly-overwhelming portraits. Left is Lord Mountstuart, from a private collection, and on the right, the famous portrait of Elizabeth Farren, actress, later Countess of Derby.  Diane and I had already been through the exhibition once or we could not have stood still long enough for the shot.  Think we were excited? Oh, just a little!

John, Lord Mountstuart  (1767-94) is a stunning example of raw masculinity that shocked some viewers (like the King!) when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1795.  Like many of Lawrence’s portraits — if not all — the dramatic setting is enhanced by the exquisite detail and highlights of white, silver and pink. Lord Mountstuart stands on the edge of a precipice, with Spanish mountains and the Palace of Escorial in the background. Lawrence began this portrait before Mountstuart’s unexpected death at a young age.

Like several of the other portraits, I had visited before with Elizabeth Farren (1759-62-1829) in her usual home at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I want to put in a reminder here of the excellent novel about Miss Farren, the Earl of Derby (her eventual husband), Anne Damer, and other luminaries in the highest social circles of early 19th c. London, written by acclaimed novelist Emma Donoghue (author of the current best seller, Room). Entitled Life Mask, this is a fascinating fictional account of real people and their intertwined lives, some of it imagined, some of it factual. More details here. 

Lawrence is at his best, carrying on in the tradition of Van Dyke, Gainsborough and others by painting the fabrics so realistically you think you could feel the satin if you touched it.  I covet that muff, by the way.

Most commentators on Lawrence make a big point of the way he flattered his sitters, sometimes outrageously so, as in the portraits of George IV.  But there were a few exceptions to his usual flattery in this exhibition. For example, the Portrait of Catherine Rebecca Grey, Lady Manners, later Lady Huntingtower (1766-1852).  It is a fine portrait, with excellent details.  But I would not say this straight on view of  her face is particularly complimentary. Instead, she looks almost surprised to find us staring at her. The brightly colored peacock beside her draws the viewer’s attention away  from her face.  The fine sheer dress fabric is painted as realistically as Farren’s satin, puddling around her feet like a wispy little cloud. And the rose in her right hand is perfection. 

I don’t mean to infer that she is not attractive, but only that a three-quarter view might have been much more flattering.  That word again. This portrait belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art, like many of the others on loan to this exhibition.  Yale is the second and last venue for Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, on view until June 5, 2011.

detail of Catherine Grey, Lady Manners

The other  portrait I find less than flattering is this view of  Robert Banks Jenkinson, later the  2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770-1828).  Again, the head-on view does not compliment him.  He seems to be frowning and his lip is slightly curled, almost as if beginning a sneer.  This painting dates from 1793-96 when Lawrence was doing many statesmen and politicians, and flattering many of them.  Another Lawrence picture (not in this exhibition) of Lord Liverpool done 33 years later, portrays him as less
confrontational yes equally sure of himself.

 At right, Lord Liverpool in 1826 as Prime Minister, in the National Portrait Gallery (not in the Yale exhibition) 

 This drawing of Isabella Wolff (c.1771-1829) is one of many Lawrence did of his close friend Mrs. Wolff.  The exhibition catalogue cautions us not to consider these sketches are preliminary to the oil portrait below, though there are similarities for sure.

Isabella Wolff and Thomas Lawrence remained dear friends for many years, and were sometimes suspected of being lovers. For more on Lawrence’s love life, go backward in this blog to Jo Manning’s essays on January 8, 9, and 10th, 2011. 

 This is probably the first Thomas Lawrence canvas I saw as a child. At the Art Institute of Chicago, it was my favorite picture.   Maybe it still is.

As one of the reviews of the exhibition said, many of us became more than familiar with some Lawrence images because we saw them on biscuit tins and other ads or labels. Or in multiple prints, even paint-by-number sets.This charming view of a thoughtful (or bored) little boy is one of those biscuit tin portraits — you’ve seen it a million times, though you can’t remember quite where.  This is Charles William Lambton, painted in 1825, now in a private collection. Charles was about seven in the portrait and he died just six years later at age thirteen. That gives a distinct poignant twist to this familiar face.

Another very familiar picture, The Calmady Children (Laura Anne and Emily), is included in the show, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This pose too, can be found “everywhere.”  And it is not hard to see why. Thomas Lawrence was wonderful with children. Though he had none of his own, never having married, he captured the innocence and joy of childhood in a magical way.    A picture not in this exhibition, usually known as Pinkie, is probably THE most famous, most reproduced, used and mis-used of Lawrence’s work.

Pinkie is a portrait of Sarah Barrett Moulton painted in 1794. It can be seen at the Huntington Library and Museum of Art in San Marino, CA.  It is often shown with a Gainsborough portrait called Blue Boy. (Again, this picture is not in the Yale exhibition.) I actually think I’ve seen Pinkie on a tea towel.

To conclude part one of our visit to the exhibition, here is a lovely family group, another in Lawrence’s bravura style.  The beautiful lady and her son, heir to a great title, with their faithful dog in a scene that will be a family heirloom forever. But wait!!! This is a portrait of Mrs. Frances Hawkins and her Son, John James Hamilton, painted in 1805-6. 
Mrs. Hawkins was a mistress of the imperious 1st Marquess of Abercorn and young John was his son by her.  He had several other children by his three wives. Nevertheless, the picture was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1806.  One London newspaper found it “deficient in sobriety and simplicity.”  Another  commented that the dog was too big and disliked the view through the circular wall.

Diane Gaston and I want to thank Amy McDonald and Kaci Bayless for their assistance and hospitality at the Yale Center for British Art. Everyone was cheerful, helpful and welcoming. We wish we could have attended one of the many programs accompanying the exhibition. They are listed on-line if you click here.  For more information on the exhibition, click here.
Diane has blogged on our visit and you can find her report here.

I will be back with lots more about Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance in days to come. Remember, the closing date is June 5, so make your plans to visit New Haven soon.

Update from Yale…

Victoria here in new Haven CT, on a sunny but chilly day. Diane Gaston and I had a delightful visit to Sir Thomas Lawrence yesterday at Yale’s Center for British Art. I wish every one of our readers could have joined us for this feast of magnificent art: the exhibition Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance. The show runs through June 5, 2011, so you have time to walk, run or crawl to see it.

Kristine and Jo Manning have reported about the exhibit as shown in London’s National Portrait Gallery on this blog. So Diane and I were prepared but nothing really could have readied us for the overwhelming views of so many beautiful, colorful and stunning canvases gathered together. WOW! And the drawings were also wonderful. I will have much more to say and show after we go back today to experience all of it again. And hit the gift shop, too. Yum.

A Look at Lover's Eyes by Guest Blogger Jo Manning – Part Two

Copyright The Art of Mourning

Although the craze for Lover’s Eyes – and it was a craze, thanks to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was said to have exchanged lovers’ eyes with his putative wife, Maria Fitzherbert and perhaps with his lover, Mary Robinson (the actress known as Perdita) – flourished for only a short time, his niece Queen Victoria years later was also said to be fond of them and gave them as gifts. To quote Candice Hern, a fellow writer of historical romance novels, “even though the notion of eye brooches was by that time very old-fashioned.”

Ah, but in their day…! Christopher Stocks, writing in the Patek Philippe Magazine last year, noted:
“The combination of royalty and society was as potent then as it is today, and before long the fashion for eye miniatures spread through European high society and as far as Russia and the U.S.”

I first became aware of eye miniatures when I sat in on a presentation given by Candice Hern, as a matter of fact. This was some years ago at a Romance Writers of America conference. Candice’s very fine website shows the eyes in her collection:

Copyright Candice Hern

The examples displayed are prime, and are indeed lovely. Hers are all set into brooches; two show blue-eyed women; two are brown-eyed men. Who they are, again, is not known, and neither are the artists who painted them nor for whom they were intended, though we do have clues that several – and maybe a lot more than several – were painted by the prolific and noted miniaturists Richard Cosway and George Engleheart. (Ozias Humphry is said to have painted a few, also.)

Though a number of miniatures bearing the signature of Cosway are suspected not to be his, Engleheart did make a practice in his later years of initialing or signing his name to his work and these are considered genuine, not fakes. (These jottings are not easy to see unless the eye miniature is removed from its setting.)

Speaking of fakes, they are, alas, proliferating in this age of photo-shopping and cropping and Internet image borrowing. They can, however, be distinguished easily from the real thing upon close inspection owing to the presence of pixels rather than brushstrokes. See this very good article by the late Barry Weber, an expert in the field who often appeared on PBS’s Antiques Road Show.

Weber went on to say that “murky colors that use dark sepia tones” should make one wary, as these colors may be “a heavy-handed effort to falsify age.” He also cautioned, “an antique frame doesn’t add authenticity to the painting.” Camilla Lombardi, director of the portrait miniatures department at Bonham’s in London has been seeing an increasing number of fakes as the real thing becomes rarer, particularly noting caution if a nose, or part of a nose, appears in an eye miniature. She says that in genuine eye miniatures there should be “no real sign of the nose where you would expect it, whereas in a cut-down eye miniature you would see the line of the nose and shadow where the corner of the eye meets the bridge of the nose.”

Copyright PBS

What George Williamson had to say in The Art of the Miniature Painter about the care of miniature portraits would apply as well to the much tinier lover’s eyes:

“Miniatures should not be exposed to a strong light… Violent changes of temperature are to be avoided, and should the ivory become too dry it may crack… Lockets and pendants containing miniatures should not be worn at dances, or on any occasion where the wearer is liable to become overheated, as acid condensation takes place inside the glass which may ruin the painting.”

Ather problem – which perhaps accounts for the rarity of eye miniatures set into rings rather than brooches, pendants, or cases – is that water could get under the glass protecting the miniature and wash away the watercolors. Washing hands was death to a lover’s eye set into a ring.


And what are these eye miniatures, these oh-so-romantic lover’s eyes, worth in today’s antique jewelry market? Barry Weber noted, “Few pieces cost less than $1,000.” He added, “American pieces are spectacularly rare,” mentioning “one jewel-encrusted example worth $20,000.” Christopher Stocks values unattributed pieces at $1,500, whilst attributed pieces could go as high as $7,500 each. In the 1950s, when no one wanted them, they could be gotten for next to nothing, out of favor and even considered “repulsive” – to quote the art critic David Piper in 1957 — as both jewelry and art.

The oft-cited reference – in Charles Dickens’ 1848 novel, Dombey and Son – reinforces Piper’s condemnation, with the dismissive description of the lover’s eye worn by the elderly spinster Miss Tox as “representing a fishy old eye…” How anyone could see these eyes in that way is just another example of how one person’s treasure can be considered another person’s trash, or, de gustibus non disputandum est.

Lover’s eyes are exquisite, in the opinion of many contemporary collectors, connoisseurs, and lovers of beautiful objects, and this exhibition will bring them to the forefront once again. It has only taken some 200 years! And, reader, do go through Great-Grandmother’s box of trinkets in the attic once more, for who knows what precious eyes may be lurking there, desperate for the light.

A 20th-century version of an eye miniature, from a Bronzino portrait; note the differences between this and a classic lover’s eye.

A Look at Lover's Eyes by Guest Blogger Jo Manning – Part One

Copyright – The Philadelphia Museum of Art

In February of 2012, “The Look Of Love,” an exhibition dedicated to the art of Georgian-era eye miniatures, will take place at Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art, curated by Graham C. Boettcher. It will feature the collection of Birmingham residents Nan and David Skier; theirs is perhaps one of the largest collections of this art-cum-jewelry in the world, at some 70 pieces.

I am one of the contributors to the exhibition catalog, though I own but one lover’s eye. Mine is a man’s eye surrounded by seed pearls and set in a gold ring. This ring is shown on page 165 of my biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, My Lady Scandalous (Simon and Schuster, 2005). I do not know who the man was, nor do I know the name of the artist. I also do not know for whom it was intended, but I believe it was a mourning ring.

Copyright – The Ornamentalist

The great majority of eye miniatures fall into this category of nameless subject/nameless artist/unknown owner. Moreover, not much has been written on this hybrid form of painting/jewelry, nor are there significant sources for research into this topic to fill in the gaps. What has been written tends to repeat the same historical anecdotes but does not provide much in the way of new material. This 2012 exhibit promises to change this situation. The three essays I have read recently quote exactly the same material; it is way past time to break new ground!

Portrait miniatures abounded in the time of the English Georges in the 18th century/early 19th century, eye miniatures did not. These miniscule paintings very carefully delineated one eye, one eyebrow, perhaps a some wispy strands of hair falling to one side [one of the ways to differentiate between men and women), but never a nose. It was, to put it romantically, an eye – usually the eye of a lover –floating untethered in space, gazing unabashedly at the beloved.

These miniatures were not meant to be seen by just anyone. Their nature was secret, more clandestine, as it were, not at all public. They were meant to be love tokens exchanged by a pair of lovers…and theirs alone. The owner of the eye miniature could carry it safely, knowing that only those with whom she/he chose to share her/his innermost secrets would know whose eye it was.

Those that were not tokens of a lover’s affection – and there are a fair number of these — fall into the category of sentimental or mourning jewelry and are identified by a single diamond tear falling from the eye, or a surround of seed pearls, pearls being another metaphor for tears or mourning. (Sometimes a tiny lock of hair was placed behind the painting, reminding one of those strange pieces of hair jewelry favored by the Victorians.)

Copyright The Art of Mourning

The eye miniatures were usually painted in watercolor on ivory, vellum, or even waxed playing card, and protected by a glass cover. Average size was barely half an inch across. The eyes not surrounded by pearls were often framed in garnets, amethysts, and other popular gemstones of the period. It has been estimated that only one to two thousand of these pieces were ever made, making them very rare and thus very collectible.

Copyright The V and A Museum

The tear(s) are easier to see here, and, of course, the seed pearls emphasize this is a bereavement brooch.

Part Two Coming Soon!

Sir Thomas Lawrence Arrives at Yale

Opening today, February 24, 2011: Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance will be on view at the Yale Center for British Art until June 5, 2011.

Kristine and Jo Manning both saw the exhibition in its first venue at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  Victoria hopes to be there in a few days…and I will report on my visit.  You can read our previous posts on this blog on 10/20/10, 1/7-8-9-10/11, and 2/2/11.  We find Sir Thomas to be a fascinating subject and the exhibition equally so.

Thomas Lawrence, self-portrait from 1788, right, was born in Bristol in 1769. He was a child prodigy and by age 10, when his family moved to Bath, he supported then with his drawings in pastels.  He moved to London at age 18 and was soon hailed as an up and coming talented successor to Sir Joshua Reynolds, then Britain’s leading portraitist.

One of his fine portraits, of a friend’s wife, Mary Hamilton, is shown in the exhibition, and makes one eager for more of the early pastels. But clients were eager for portraits in oils, and Lawrence excelled here too. He drew Mary Hamilton in pencil, red and black chalk in 1789. The British Museum, which owns the work, writes, “This important drawing of Mary Hamilton is arguably the most beautiful female portrait of its type remaining in this country.”  A detail of the drawing was used as the cover for a 2008 exhibition at the British Museum The Intimate Portrait, below.

Lawrence’s portrait of Queen Charlotte,  wife of George III, brought him fame and eventually fortune. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790, the canvas was praised for its detail and its fine brushwork.

The stunning portrait of actress Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby, exhibited at the RA in 1790, is one of the exhibition posters offered for purchase.  For information on the Yale exhibition, the catalogue, posters and more, click here.   Elizabeth Farren (1759-1829) began her London stage career in 1777, appearing in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. She became the object of Lord Derby’s affections, and after his first wife died, Farren married him in 1797. She thus retired from the theatre and became a countess, wife of a prominent Whig member of the House of Lords. They were parents of three children.

Jonathan Jones, reviewing the exhibition as shown in London, wrote in The Guardian: “Lawrence is a painter who triumphed in his lifetime, yet was forgotten afterwards. Why was he neglected? The question echoes through this extremely interesting exhibition… It is because he associated with the wrong royal… Raddled and bloated and unpopular, George IV looks out of Lawrence’s Wallace Collection masterpiece as if he knows full well that in centuries to come, people will joke that ‘there are pieces of lemon peel floating in the Thames that would make a better monarch’.”

But Lawrence’s relationship with the Prince Regent, later George IV, was lucrative and certainly added to his fame. The Regent sent Lawrence around Europe to paint the leaders of the allied victory over Napoleon. The paintings hang in Windsor Castle, though many copies executed in Lawrence’s studio, can be seen in palaces, mansions and museums worldwide.

The Duke of Wellington was the real hero of the  battle, but many, including a coalition of European leaders contributed to the long-sought defeat of Napoleon. Lawrence painted the Duke a number of times, including here on the back of Copenhagen, the horse who carried him throughout the day-long Battle of Waterloo.

Victoria has long adored this painting, from the collection of the Chicago Art Institute. As a child, she often stood in front of Mrs.Jens Wolff and wondered what made this elegant lady so sad. The portrait was commissioned in 1802 or 03 by the sister of Mrs. Wolff and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1815.  Isabella Wolff was the wife of the Danish Consul in London; they divorced in 1813. She is portrayed as the

Erythraean Sibyl (similar to the Sistine Chapel version) and she gazes at a book of engravings by Michelangelo. Lawrence and Isabella Wolff may have been romantically involved for some years, though why it took the artist a dozen years to complete the portrait is a good question. They continued to write to one another until her death.

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance will be on display at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT,  until June 5, 2011.  We will report  again after our visit. For more information on the Yale Center for British Art, click here.