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Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A. (Bristol 1769-1830 London)
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Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A. (Bristol 1769-1830 London)

Head study of a lady

Details
Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A. (Bristol 1769-1830 London)
Head study of a lady
oil on canvas
16 3/8 x 11 ½ in. (41.5 x 29.2 cm.)
Provenance
Eliot Hodgkin (1905-1987) and Maria Clara "Mimi" Henderson Hodgkin, London, by whom acquired in Paris in 1957; Christie's, London, 7 December 2007, lot 243.
Literature
K. Garlick, 'A Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings and Pastels of Sir Thomas Lawrence', The Walpole Society, XXXIX, London, 1964, p. 207.
K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence, London, 1989, p. 292, no. 873, illustrated.
Exhibited
London, Royal Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A.: 1769–1830, 28 October– 31 December 1961, no. 57.
London, Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, Eliot Hodgkin: Painter & Collector, 14 March-10 April 1990, no. 99.
Special notice

Please note that Christie’s has a direct financial interest in this lot. See Important Notices and Explanation of Cataloguing Practice in the Conditions of Sale for further information.

Lot Essay

This delightful and compelling head study was dated by Kenneth Garlick to circa 1795. By that time, Lawrence, not yet thirty, had already established himself as the leading portraitist in Georgian London. He had moved there in 1787, aged 18, and his precocious talent was soon recognised. Until then, Lawrence had worked predominantly as a portraitist in pastel, but from the moment of his arrival in London, he turned his attention almost exclusively to painting in oil, which he mastered with extraordinary speed. In a letter to his mother dated 1788 he displayed full confidence in his abilities in the medium, commenting that “excepting Sir Joshua, for the painting of a head, I would risk my reputation with any painter in London”. Lawrence first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1788. Soon after, in September 1789, he received a summons to paint Queen Charlotte at Windsor Castle: an unprecedented commission for a twenty-year-old. The Royal Academy exhibition of 1790, in which he exhibited not only his remarkable full-length portrait of the queen (London, National Gallery), but also his celebrated full-length portrait of Elizabeth Farren (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), was to seal his reputation, and cement his position as the natural heir to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Lawrence was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1791 and, on Reynolds's death a year later, he succeeded him as Painter to the Dilettanti Society, and was also appointed Painter-in-Ordinary to the King. His prodigious artistic ability was fully recognised with his election as a full member of the Royal Academy in 1794, at the youngest permitted age of twenty-five.

Lawrence's emergence represented a new dawn in British portraiture. The nature of his artistic vision was profoundly different to that of Reynolds, and very much the product of what Sir Michael Levey described as his “own highly charged genius”. This contrast was apparent at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790, where Lawrence's full-lengths of Queen Charlotte and Elizabeth Farren, which so astonished the London art world, could be compared directly with Sir Joshua's full-length of Mrs. Billington as Saint Cecilia. As Kenneth Garlick commented, Reynolds's portrait of Lady Billington was “the traditional, academic rendering, the assertion by Reynolds of his learning and his wisdom at the end of his career”, while Lawrence's portraits represented “a confident statement by a young man just beginning, something new, less learned, less well-bred, perhaps just slightly brash, but amazingly clever” (op. cit., p. 16).

This enigmatic oil sketch is the product of Lawrence’s consummate technical prowess and inventiveness. Though the identity of the sitter remains a mystery, her fresh, vivid features are idiosyncratic and fully resolved. By contrast her hair and jauntily-angled hat have been rapidly and loosely sketched with breath-taking bravura, and were, it would seem, never intended to be taken further. The halo of scattered daubs around her head are color samples for the sitter’s flesh tones, and afford a rare insight into the artist’s working practice. Lawrence’s intention was always to capture the expression rather than to slavishly copy the sitters’ features and, to this end, he required his sitters to be animated rather than in repose. He maintained “that the picture, whatever it is, be first accurately drawn on the canvas” (in a letter of circa 1790 to Lord Malden; see M. Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, New Haven & London 2005, pp. 2 and 320, note 6) and rarely produced preliminary drawings, which lent his work its characteristically vivid, bravura style. However, he was a self-confessed perfectionist and a “slave of the picture I am painting” (D.E. Williams, The life and correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Kt, London, 1831, II, p.52), frequently abandoning his portrait heads unfinished, floating, as here, in the midst of a blank canvas. As he informed a patron in 1813 "Few but artists are acquainted with the difficulties of making up a picture after what is usually considered the most arduous part is finished" (M. Hardie, 'Sittings at Sir Thomas Lawrence's: The Curious History of a Picture', Magazine of Art, II, 1904, p. 268). Indeed, when Lawrence died in 1830, he left some 200 unfinished portraits.

Lawrence’s career was dogged by imputations of improprietous behaviour towards his female sitters, and his female portraits frequently received criticism in his own lifetime for their perceived eroticism and immorality. In an article on the portraitist Thomas Phillips, published a month after Lawrence’s death, an anonymous poet - possibly Samuel Rogers – jested, “If I wanted my mistress painted I would go to Lawrence; if my wife, I would go to Phillips.” Likewise, Fanny Kemble, who sat to Lawrence, wrote, “His sentimentality was of a particularly mischievous order, as it not only induced women to fall in love with him, but enabled him to persuade himself that he was in love with them, and, apparently, with more than one at a time.”

In this portrait of an unknown woman there is an expression of implied intimacy. The sitter reciprocates the viewer’s gaze and cocks her head in a gesture at once charming and suggestive. The quick flicks and daubs of his paintbrush communicate the immediacy of the documented moment, and twin highlights glint in the sitter’s eyes, infusing the picture with life and sensibility, while also suggesting the intimacy of the encounter between sitter and artist.

For the catalogue of the exhibition at Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox in 1990, Eliot Hodgkin: Painter and Collector, Sir Brinsley Ford provided an affectionate and admiring introduction, which comprised a brief biography and reflections on his friend’s achievements, both as a gifted and individual artist, and as a collector of an unusual range of interests fully shared by his wife Mimi. Eliot Hodgkin was particularly interested in architecture and the preservation of distinguished buildings, many of which he had seen destroyed during World War II and its aftermath, and he consequently decided that his own collection should be sold for the benefit of The Georgian Group and The Victorian Society.

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