This striking portrait can be dated to the 1790s, a key decade in Lawrence's career that began with the exhibition of his celebrated full-length portraits of Queen Charlotte (1789; London, National Gallery) and Elizabeth Farren (1790; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) at the Royal Academy, and ended with the artist's reputation as the leading portraitist of his generation firmly established.
This spontaneously brushed and unfinished head, revealing the artist's use of black chalk directly onto the canvas, provides a fascinating insight into Lawrence’s technique and approach at the beginning of a commission, and can be compared with the portrait of almost identical dimensions of Colonel Thomas Wildman (1831; Sotheby’s, London, 8 December 2011, lot 290, for £51,650). Lady Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, who sat to Lawrence in 1817-18 (Private collection), recalled the artist executing the preliminary sketch, saying 'what struck me most... was the perfection of the drawing of his portraits before any colour was put on - the drawing by itself was so perfectly beautiful' that it seemed 'almost a sin' to paint over it (Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, Sir Thomas Lawrence, London, 1900, pp. 37-8).
As the inscription on the stretcher suggests, the sitter was once thought to be William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the politician, philanthropist and one of the leaders of the movement to abolish the slave trade. In the second half of the nineteenth century the picture was in the collection of the Victorian portraitist Richard Buckner, and was later owned by the French painter and print-maker, Paul-Adolphe Rajon.
We are grateful to Brian Allen for confirming the attribution to Lawrence, after inspection of the original, and for dating the work to the 1790s.