THE MAN WHO MADE LISTS – GUEST BLOGGER JO MANNING – Part One

I browsed recently through a biography I picked up at the public library, Joshua Kendall’s The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008).

Happily having used Roget’s Thesaurus – that incomparable list of synonyms and antonyms — throughout my writing career, I realized I didn’t know anything at all about its compiler, Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869). I’d never even wondered why someone with a French surname had written a book on the English language. Neither did I know when it was first published. Roget’s was simply a book of synonyms that was always there, that people knew, and used – especially when solving crossword puzzles or writing essays — and that was that. Right? I was also grateful to him, very grateful, because he so alleviated (whew!) my monologophobia (the fear of using the same word twice in a piece of writing).

But, seriously, who was this lexicographer who’d produced such a seminal work?

Author Joshua Kendall, a journalist who describes himself as a “word nerd”, tells a fascinating and dramatic story, one well worth reading. (His current project is the biography of another word nerd, America’s Noah Webster.)

Roget began his career as a medical doctor, but went on to many accomplishments, among them his invention of the slide rule, his role in nitrous oxide/laughing gas experiments with Thomas Beddoes, developing filtration systems for London’s sewers, posing the first chess problems for newspapers, his work on optics (that led some to link his name in a later century with moving pictures), his popular lectures on anatomy and other scientific subjects, and his wealth of writings on physiology and health. In 1834 he became the first Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution and he was a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge.

My curiosity having been aroused, I began to read the book, especially interested in the tantalizing promise of the love and madness part, as a writer of romantic fiction and as the biographer of a famous courtesan.

First, his ethnicity. The Rogets were French-speaking Swiss from Geneva. Jean Roget, his father, was the minister of a Protestant church in the Soho neighborhood of London, which had a large Huguenot (French Protestant) population in the 18th century. His mother was from a wealthy middle-class Huguenot family; her mother Margaret Garnault, was an heiress, and her father Peter Romilly was a well-off jeweler. His mother’s brother, the highly respected Sir Samuel Romilly, had a distinguished career in government.

Sir Thomas Lawrence painted that great man circa 1806-1810:

Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818)

But there were serious health problems – mental as well as physical – in the Roget and Romilly families. The mental illness was in the Romilly family; Roget’s maternal grandmother, Margaret, was an unstable personality who needed constant supervision. Roget’s father’s problem fell into the physical realm: he developed tuberculosis. This necessitated a move back to Switzerland, where treatments for the condition were considered better. The infant Peter was left with his maternal grandparents, and when just a toddler he was taken to Switzerland by his uncle Samuel to be with his parents and new baby sister Annette. But all was not well with his parents. His mother may have been suffering from post-partum depression after Annette’s birth, and when his father finally succumbed to TB after four years, she fell into a sharp mental decline.As Kendall observes, “Madness ran in the immediate family. [His maternal grandmother] … suffered from an unidentified mental disorder – probably severe depression or schizophrenia – that left her in an almost vegetative state for most of her life.”

Roget’s mother, who was described as “temperamental and emotionally demanding,” lapsed into paranoia in her old age.Alas, it didn’t end there. Roget’s sister Annette – and, later, his daughter Kate – also suffered from severe bouts of depression. And his kind uncle Sir Samuel Romilly, longtime Member of Parliament and internationally renowned reformer of the system of British criminal law, among many other legal triumphs, fell into a deep depression and committed suicide in 1818.

By this time, Peter Mark Roget, almost 40 years of age and unmarried, had a thriving medical practice and had become a member of the Royal Society; he was the one called to his uncle’s bedside. Sir Samuel had slashed his throat with a razor, inconsolable after the death of his wife, whom Roget had attended in her last, fatal, illness. (This incident is described in tragic detail in the opening pages of the Kendall biography.Sir Samuel’s demise was a great loss to his family and to the nation. A good part of the blame for his suicide, alas, was attributed later to the insensitivity of the medical treatment of his nephew, Peter Mark Roget. This blame, unfortunately, may well have been warranted.Kendall states “no one questioned Roget’s concern for his uncle” but “a consensus emerged that he had failed to grasp the full extent of Romilly’s emotional agony” upon the loss of his wife. But, again, severe depression ran in the Romilly family, and perhaps no physician could – at that time – have done anything to alleviate Roget’s uncle’s grief and deterred him from suicide.

Samuel Romilly’s suicide unhinged Peter Mark Roget for a good long while.
According to Kendall, the tragedy – and the guilt — caused Roget to undergo what Kendall dubs “a midlife crisis.” He left the medical profession and pursued a second – and hugely more successful — career as a lecturer at the Royal Institution.

Roget’s Royal Institution Medal, 1819

 

Part Two Coming Soon!

REMEMBERING HESTER DAVENPORT

How many times has Hester Davenport’s name passed my lips since we lost her on  September 23rd, 2013 – five years ago? Too many to count, as we at Number One London have so many memories of our beloved friend, sharing them often. If we’re not speaking of Hester amongst ourselves – Kristine, Victoria and Jo Manning – we’re sharing stories of Hester with other friends and acquaintances. She is never far from our hearts.

Victoria, here. I find it difficult to express my sense of loss at the news of Hester’s passing. We will miss her terribly. Wherever she is, I am sure she is organizing everything with her gentle touch and genial good humor.

Kristine and I (and Kristine’s daughter Brooke) thrust ourselves upon Hester one day in June, 2010, full of excitement for our upcoming trip to see the reenactment at the 195th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  She had invited us to spend the day with her at Windsor, but little were we prepared for the depth of her welcome and her plans for our visit.  We started at the Windsor Guildhall, where she showed us around the upper floors. Then we went into the lower level where the archives were in the process of being moved to make way for the new museum that Hester masterminded.

Hester thoroughly charmed and surprised us by showing us the accounts of the news of the Waterloo victory as they were received and celebrated, as reported in the Windsor and Eton Express.  The original newspapers had been bookmarked for us and there probably had never been two more thrilled readers of the Windsor Gazette than Kristine and I were.

We read about how and when the news was received and the celebratory plans for the royal family and the community.  It was such a thoughtful thing for Hester to do, and greatly added to our enjoyment of our Waterloo visit.  After giving us the latest 195-year-old news, Hester asked us if we’d like to go see the Queen.
That is a QUESTION???  We jumped at the chance.  Off we hiked to the drive from the Castle up the long walk toward Ascot.  Hester told us that the royals went most of the way in autos then changed to open carriages to enter the race course.  A small group had gathered to await the parade of black limos, and we had a glimpse of Herself as she passed by.
 We went on to lunch in a quaint cobbled street-café, all the while chattering a mile a minute, telling each other about various projects underway, observing the locals and tourists, and basking in Hester’s erudite presence.  Of course we talked about the royals, Waterloo, the new Museum about to be created in the Guildhall, then on to persons of interest to all of us, celebrities such as Mary Robinson,  Fanny Burney, Mrs. Delaney, Dr. Johnson, and Queen Victoria (and Prince Albert).  Exactly the kind of celebrity small talk everyone enjoys, right? Well, at least those of us who indulge in the fantasy of  living in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Eventually we moseyed off to the Castle and did the tour.  We were certain Hester had walked that route a million times but she gallantly assured us she loved it every time.  Every step of the way, she told us  “inside” stories, all about the fire in 1992 and what was restored.  And how!

 

On other visits to Windsor, Hester showed us all around the new museum, where she had also welcomed Her Majesty (see below).  She always had the most interesting details to impart without in any way taking credit for all the things she had accomplished.  As head of Dr. Johnson’s House, as an excellent biographer, and as the head of the Frances Burney Society (in addition to many other endeavors and awards), Hester had a role in the most esteemed of British scholarly organizations. But she always had time to chat with amateurs like us.  So we will greatly miss a wonderful friend and favorite companion. All our best to her dear husband, Tony, gardener extraordinaire, and to their daughters.  RIP, Hester.

Victoira at the Guildhall Museum
Kristine here, still unable to process the fact that Hester is gone. Hester and Windsor will forever be linked in my heart. So many memories and so many good times, most arranged by Hester, who was a respected historian, accomplished writer and also very funny. Below is a photo taken by Victoria of Hester and I looking at the grave of Mary Robinson in Windsor, which Hester tended faithfully.
You won’t believe me, but on several occasions Hester related the funniest stories about Mary’s grave to Jo, Victoria and myself. I think my favorite was the time that Hester was showing a group Mary’s grave and while she was giving her talk, became distracted by the fact that Mary’s grave boasted several fresh sprays of flowers. Who could have left them? Where had they come from? It wasn’t till she’d finished that Hester realized she’d taken the group to the wrong grave.

I remember the email we received from Hester telling us that she was doing a truly daring thing – bidding on an original print of Rowlandson’s Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, above. A broker would be phoning in her bids during the live auction. We girls kept our fingers crossed across the pond and were dead chuffed to learn that Hester had submitted the winning bid. Next time I was over, of course I saw the print up close and in person. What a treat.

Hester always good naturedly carried out my commissions with patience, like the time I mailed her a twenty pound note and asked her to buy me the Oyster card issued to commemorate the wedding of William and Kate, which she purchased at Windsor station and mailed to me. (I’m still using it)

Hester was instrumental in the founding of the Guildhall Museum and was appointed to welcome Her Majesty and take her around the exhibits when the Museum first opened.

Of course, the Guildhall figures largely in my memories of Hester. And the Queen. Hester and the Queen – could anything be more perfect?

As most of you know, Hubby and I recently spent two fabulous days with Hester when we were over in January. Firstly, Hester drove us to Oatlands, now a hotel, but once the home of Frederica, Duchess of York. The three of us had tea and then Hester helped me to search the grounds and find Freddy’s pet cemetery. Below is a photo of Hubby, Hester and some guy they picked up at Hampton Court, where we went afterwards. Next day, Hester and I toured the kitchens at Windsor Castle together, had lunch and took a stroll by the river.

Hester was to have spoken to our group when Victoria and I go over to Windsor in September 2014 for the Wellington Tour.  How everyone in our group would have enjoyed meeting Hester – and how much fun we’d have had.

I am convinced that Hester is now spending her days in a well appointed drawing room with the likes of Brummell, Fanny Burney, Mrs. Fitzherbert, the Duke of Wellington and the Duchess of York. I only pray that she’s keeping my seat warm.

From Jo Manning

The last time I saw my dear friend and colleague Hester Davenport was when I waved goodbye to her as she drove back to Old Windsor after dropping me off at the railroad station in Windsor. It had been a glorious day, but all days with Hester were glorious, despite the often mercurial English weather.

We’d had tea and pastries – the biscuits a culinary treat – in the back garden with her husband Tony, enjoying the spring flowers and exquisite green swathe of lawn. I was sorry to have to leave, as I always was, because good company is rare anywhere in the world and theirs was sublime.

 

Hester, after her long and arduous string of medical treatments, looked so well! And she was chipper,  too, looking forward to her next adventures in writing and editing. She was skilled in both, such a talent. Her prose was smooth and readable, eminently so.

 

We “met” online in 2005, when my publisher forwarded to me Hester’s comments on the biography I wrote on the 18th-century courtesan and memoirist Grace Dalrymple Elliott. It’s a small world:  Hester had recently completed a well-researched, beautifully-written biography of Grace Elliott’s rival in love – or what passed for it in the Georgian era amongst the aristocrats and royals – Mary Robinson aka Perdita.

 

Hester’s remarks about my writing were so very kind…and thoughtful. She took issue with some interpretations I’d made but acknowledged that so much of the conclusions we drew concerning the lives of these ladies were interpretive, at best.  We loved our subjects, those so-called soiled doves so ill-used by wealthy and powerful men…tough women who sometimes triumphed over social adversity but most times did not.

 

We were thoroughly engrossed in our research and subject matter and it was so delightful to find each other…someone to talk with and reflect and whose company was thoroughly enjoyable. Yes, we most assuredly would have bored the trousers off the majority of people with what we talked about, so being together was a treat beyond the ken of most. We also bonded over biographers who came after us and used our research, claiming it to be their own. We each had a specific bête-noire!

 

 We actually met face-to-face in early 2006, over a delicious meal and white wine at the restaurant atop the National Portrait Gallery. The talking was even more delicious than what we ate or drank  Hester was witty…and wise…and a wonderful companion.

 

We always had something to discuss, somewhere to go – museum exhibition (the Thomas Lawrence show stands out here), Jane Austen’s haunts – the memories are fabulous and Hester’s energy was unflagging as she drove me around the English countryside. I will also never forget the wonderful day we had at Windsor Castle with my two eldest granddaughters, Zoe and Esme Winterbotham. She introduced us to Windsor Castle – what a superb guide! – and the girls introduced her to Wagamama. (A restaurant she said she very much enjoyed getting to know.)

 

A highlight of our day at Windsor was our side visit to St George’s Chapel, where Hester thoroughly scandalized the docents  — and delighted me and the girls – by stomping fiercely on the earthly remains of King Henry VIII, an historical character we found revolting to the max. I will never forget that scene.

 

I miss her. I will always miss her, although I continue to have an ongoing dialogue with her in my mind. I truly believe that people are only really gone when you forget them, when memories disappear. I will never forget my kind, wise, wonderful, clever, witty, darling friend Hester Davenport…and I will bless her memory so long as I live.

 

 

THE WRETCHED LOVE LIFE OF SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE – Part Four – Jo Manning

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.

Lord Mountstuart of Bute (1767-1794)


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.”

Isabella Wolff, 1803-1815, now at the Art Institute of Chicago

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.

The End

THE WRETCHED LOVE LIFE OF SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE – Part Three – Jo Manning

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.

Elizabeth Farren, later the Countess of Derby, circa 1790
Sarah Barrett Moulton aka Pinkie, 1794, at California’s Huntington Library


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.

Jonathan Buttal (or Buttall) aka The Blue Boy, circa 1770, was painted by Gainsborough and is also in the collection of the Huntington Library

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.

The Calmady Children, 1823, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

Part Four Coming Soon!

THE WRETCHED LOVE LIFE OF SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE Part Two – Jo Manning

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.

 

Mary Darby Robinson, by Hoppner

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.

 

Detail from a Thomas Lawrence portrait of Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the rejected wife of the Prince of Wales

 

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.)

 

Part Three Coming Soon!