These rapidly executed and beautifully observed sketches would appear to be preparatory studies for one of Lawrence's most celebrated group portraits: The children of Ayscoghe Boucherett (1799-1800; Paris, Musée du Louvre; see fig. 1), a work that was subtitled The Little Orator when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800.
The sitters are Emilia Mary Boucherett (1790-1874) and her younger sisters, Juliana (d. 1861) and Maria (1797-1867), the three daughters of Ayscoghe Boucherett (1755-1815), M.P. for Great Grimsby, and his wife Emilia Crockatt (1761-1837). The latter was the step-daughter of John Julius Angerstein, the wealthy financier whose collection of Old Master paintings was purchased by the British government in 1824 and became the nucleus of the London National Gallery. It was through Angerstein, one of Lawrence's key patrons and supporters from his earliest days in London, that the artist established a close friendship with the family of the present sitters.
The Boucheretts, a landed Lincolnshire family, of Huguenot origins, lived at Willingham House (fig. 2), 'an elegant mansion erected in 1790' (J. Saunders, History of the County of Lincolnshire, IV, London and Lincoln, 1834, p. 208). Lawrence was a regular visitor and his friendship with the Boucheretts and Angersteins resulted in some of his most affectionate depictions of children, notably the delightfully spontaneous study, dated 1793, of the three-year-old Emilia Mary sitting opposite her bolt-upright doll (private collection; see M. Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, New Haven and London, 2005, p. 99, no. 53). A pastel, painted the following year, of Emilia Boucherett with her two eldest children, Emilia Mary and Ayscoghe, and her half-sister, Julia Angerstein (private collection; fig. 3) is futher evidence of Lawrence's closeness to the interrelated families. In a letter to his friend, Elizabeth Croft, written from Willingham House on 3 November 1810, Lawrence confides: 'Our party is composed of Mr. and Mrs. Boucherett, and three daughters; Mrs and Miss. Lock; Mr. and Mrs J. Angerstein and family; Mr Angerstein, and your obliged friend. I cannot conceive beings who would be more in unison with all your feelings, than this circle' (D.E. Williams, The Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, KT., I, London, 1831, p. 307).
The picture remained in Lawrence's collection until his death. When offered at the artist's posthumous sale (Christie's, 19 June 1830, lot 423) it was described as 'A study of three heads of children', with the comment that 'he seems to have had in mind the admired picture of Cherubs by Sir Joshua Reynolds'. The buyer was John Angerstein, the son of John Julius, who would presumably have recognised the three Boucherett daughters as the subjects of these sketches. The picture then passed to his son, William Angerstein, in whose sale of pictures at Christie's in 1896 the work was catalogued as 'Studies of heads of Miss Boucherett and her two sisters'. Although Armstrong (loc. cit.) made the connection between this picture's inclusion in the studio sale and its subsequent appearance, with the sitters identified, in the Angerstein sale, the canvas was listed simply as 'Heads of Angels' in Kenneth Garlick's catalogue of Lawrence's work (loc. cit.), and it seems unlikely that either he or the late Sir Michael Levey, Lawrence's most recent biographer, ever saw the picture.
The Louvre picture was, for many years, thought to show the children of John Angerstein until Garlick (op. cit., pp. 155-6, no. 120) connected the child in the lower right of the composition, clearly in the midst of a game imitating the adult world, with the subtitle of the portrait exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800: The Little Orator. The identification of the Boucherett daughters as the sitters for these highly instinctive head studies is further confirmation of the identity of the children in the Louvre picture.