Sir Thomas Lawrence, PRA, FSRA, 1750-1820
Charles Abbot, 1st Baron Colchester PC, FRS 1757 – 1829
Charles Abbot, 1st Baron Colchester PC, FRS
9th November 1825
oil on canvas
62 x 75 cm. (30 x 25in.)


There is an identical portrait of the same sitter By Sir Thomas Lawrece, PRA in the Parlimentary Art Collection at Westminster, Accession number: WOA 2725 and given by Lord Colechester in 1825, this portrait is catalogued as after the original, but it is likely that it is a studio version.

Abbot, Charles, first Baron Colchester (1757–1829), speaker of the House of Commons, was born on 14 October 1757 at Abingdon, Berkshire, the son of the Revd John Abbot (d. 1760), a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and rector of All Saints, Colchester, and his wife, Sarah, the daughter of Jonathan Farr, a citizen and draper of London. He was educated at Westminster School from 1763 and at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1776, winning the college prize for Latin verse in his first year and the chancellor's prize the year after. In 1778–9 he studied civil law in Geneva and obtained a doctorate, which was complemented by bachelor's and doctoral degrees in English civil law in 1783 and 1793. Elected Vinerian scholar by the University of Oxford in 1781, he was promoted to a residential fellowship in 1786. After being called to the bar from the Middle Temple in 1783 and joining the Oxford and Chester circuits, he surrendered his fellowship in 1792 to practise in the equity courts.

Although Abbot earned some £1500 per annum as a barrister, he found the work uncongenial. He had aimed at a mastership in chancery, but upon his elder brother's death in 1794 he opted instead to succeed him in the relatively undemanding office of clerk of the rules in king's bench, worth £2700 a year. Some contemporaries sneered at his decision to serve personally as clerk rather than through a deputy. This office, noted Sylvester Douglas, was ‘scarcely compatible with the description of a gentleman’ (NL Scot., Glenbervie MSS, diary, 7, fols. 26–31). But the lighter workload and financial security gave Abbot the opportunity to pursue his twin passions for the preservation of historical records and the promotion of administrative reform. In 1795 he published two treatises, The Practice of the Chester Circuit and Rules and Orders on the Plea Side of King's Bench. On 29 December 1796 he married Elizabeth (1760/61–1847), the daughter of Sir Philip Gibbes, first baronet, of Spring Head, Barbados, and his wife, Agnes Osborne. They had two sons.

Abbot sought entry into the Commons in 1790 and was involved in a double return, which was determined against him. His electoral patron was a former schoolfellow, the fifth duke of Leeds, who brought him in for Helston, Cornwall, at the next vacancy in June 1795. Abbot soon made it clear that he intended to pursue an independent political line, giving conspicuous support to the government's repressive legislation of 1795, notwithstanding his patron's opposition and a hostile petition from his constituents. Abbot's speech in favour of the Seditious Meetings Bill on 3 December earned the approbation of both king and prime minister. He also demonstrated a keen interest in the business of legislation, gaining the approval of the speaker, Henry Addington, who became one of his staunchest supporters. On 14 March 1796 Abbot proposed an inquiry into the manner of dealing with expiring laws. He chaired the subsequent committee and delivered the report in June which thereby established a rational system of annual tables so that no time-limited act should expire unnoticed. From 2 November he presided over a committee to regulate the promulgation of the statutes. His report delivered the following year saved £14,000 and enabled government offices and law courts to function more efficiently.

At the general election of 1796 Abbot retained Helston, having rejected offers to stand elsewhere. He chaired the select committee on finance between 1797 and 1798, presenting thirty-six reports, many of which he had drawn up himself. Resulting reforms such as the transfer of the salt revenue to the excise, the abolition of patent offices in the customs, and the establishment of a superannuation fund proved beneficial. However, Abbot's diligent but tactless investigations caused resentment, particularly within the judiciary. As a defender of Pitt's financial measures, he felt bound to support the Assessed Taxes Bill in 1797–8. This led to a breach with his electoral patron, but, when Abbot offered to resign his seat, Leeds backed down. In January 1799 Abbot moved for the production of annual accounts by the treasury and once again encountered resistance from vested interests; he nevertheless succeeded in establishing that such accounts should be presented annually.

In February 1800 Abbot initiated an inquiry into the preservation and publication of the public records, and he became a principal figure within the ensuing record commission. In May his earlier work on financial reforms culminated in a bill to charge public accountants with interest on their balances. The salutary effect of this reform, which ended a notorious abuse, was commended a decade later by the committee of public expenditure. He made another significant contribution in November by promoting a Population Bill, which established the first national census in 1801. Abbot had already set his sights on the speakership of the Commons, and it came as a blow when he was not recommended to the chair when Addington became premier in February 1801. After protracted negotiations, during which he insisted on compensation for surrendering his legal salary, Abbot went to Ireland as chief secretary to the lord lieutenant, the third earl of Hardwicke. His financial future was secured by a current salary of £5000 per annum plus a reversionary provision settled upon a sinecure. As the first Irish secretary after the union, Abbot was horrified at the corruption which had taken place under his predecessor, Lord Castlereagh. Abbot, however, did not blow the whistle on the illegal system of secret annuities. Instead he set about reforming Irish administrative procedures. As in England so in Ireland, Abbot's probing inquiries and dictatorial manner upset influential figures.

Abbot left Ireland to become speaker of the Commons as a consequence of the death of Lord Clare, the Irish lord chancellor, in January 1802. Sir John Mitford, who had succeeded Addington in the speakership, received the Irish seals and Abbot was recalled from Dublin to occupy the vacant chair. Indeed, Abbot had so far alienated vested interests in Ireland that one cabinet member greeted his candidacy with relief: ‘There is one good circumstance attending his appointment,’ noted Lord Hobart, ‘Ireland will get rid of him.’ Abbot's proven ability, together with his loyalty to Addington, guaranteed his nomination. In recommending him to the cabinet the prime minister stated bluntly that ‘Abbot may be described in a few words “He is a firm man and a very little man”’ (Glenbervie MSS, diary, fols. 16–17). The king himself was hardly enthusiastic, and made it clear that Abbot's reforming zeal was not to the royal taste. Abbot was not to be permitted to ‘attempt novelties’, because these ‘seldom succeed in the transaction of public business’ (The Public and Private Life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, ed. H. Twiss, 3 vols., 1844, 1.402). On 11 February 1802 Abbot was elected speaker with only token opposition. There were, however, discontented mutterings about the appointment. Lord Chatham questioned whether Abbot possessed sufficient status for the chair; Lord Minto thought his manner was ‘rather pert than dignified’ with ‘the tournure of a clerk … rather than of a Speaker’ (NL Scot., Minto MSS, 11054, fol. 14); and George Tierney maintained that the choice had given rise to ‘very general disgust’ (Durham University Library, Grey MSS, Tierney to Grey, 11 Feb 1802). The strongest indication of hostility came from Lord Chancellor Eldon, who snubbed the speaker on his first official visit to the Lords by declining to offer any words of approbation, privately describing Abbot as ‘the most improper appointment that could have been thought of’. Some wags contented themselves with caricaturing the scene of Abbot's installation in the speaker's chair, which it was thought would require ‘a moveable bar … like that used to prevent children from falling out’ and a ‘screw-moveable bottom to it’ (Glenbervie MSS, diary, 7, fol. 51).

In September 1802 Abbot purchased Kidbrook, Sussex, as his private residence, and at the general election he transferred his parliamentary seat to New Woodstock, Oxfordshire, under the patronage of the duke of Marlborough. Notwithstanding the earlier rumblings of dissatisfaction, there was no challenge to his re-election as speaker on 16 November 1802. Indeed, he was chosen without serious challenges in the next four parliaments. As speaker, Abbot set about remedying some of the administrative deficiencies which had irritated him when a member. He began the process of improving the printing of the Votes. These records, which should have provided a running digest of pending and forthcoming business, had always been sadly in arrears and therefore failing in their primary function. The reforms Abbot initiated in 1802–3—compressing the entries and speeding up printing—also saved £1000 a year. Delays were not entirely eliminated, but in 1817 further reforms were devised in conjunction with his secretary, John Rickman. Improvements were made to the printing of the current Commons Journal, together with the reprinting of all earlier volumes. Abbot set in train the recovery and reprinting of old parliamentary papers and the propagation and preservation of all new ones. The way in which bills and statutes were printed was rationalized: the contents of clauses were epitomized in the margin, bill titles were shortened, and useful additional information was included. Abbot was also the driving force behind the setting up of the private bill office in 1811. This was sorely needed because of the growing complexity of standing orders and the increase in the number of private bills. Henceforth, the office maintained a register of all private bills, showing the agents and detailing the legislative process. At each stage comparisons were made to monitor any changes. The office also provided information, such as notice of future proceedings, together with daily lists of committees sitting on private bills.

Although these achievements would have earned Abbot eventual recognition, he had already gained a formidable reputation for his conduct over the Melville affair of 1805. Lord Melville (formerly Henry Dundas) had been attacked in a series of resolutions by Samuel Whitbread on 8 April. Melville stood accused of having allowed subordinates to invest public funds for private gain. The debate ended in a tie and the speaker held the casting vote. Abbot is commonly remembered as having voted against Melville, finding him culpable of corruption. This conclusion is incorrect. Although Whitbread had touched upon various matters in his speech, the house could proceed to take decisions only on each resolution in turn. When the first came to be put, Pitt moved a destructive amendment, intending to refer the matter to a select committee. But he was persuaded that he should first move the previous question, and it was on this technical motion that the division was tied. Some reports were misleadingly phrased, going so far as to describe the speaker as voting in favour of Whitbread's censures. What actually occurred was a casting vote in favour of permitting the original motion to be put. Indeed Whitbread's first motion was simply a statement of fact. It stated that the Commons had resolved in 1782 that it would be advisable to reform the functioning of the office of treasurer of the navy by paying fixed salaries in lieu of fees and perquisites. Such a motion could not be directly negatived since it was true. Abbot's conception of the situation was crystal clear: there had been three strands to the charges against Melville, and the first two (namely the breaking of the law and Melville's conniving at profiteering) were ‘confessed and established—and fit for the immediate judgement of the House’ (Abbot, 1.548). The only topic needing further inquiry before a decision could be taken was whether Melville had participated in any profits. Quite properly, the speaker chose to stand aside and allow the house to vote on the first of Whitbread's motions, knowing that, if it was carried, the sense of the house would still have to be taken on the remaining nine resolutions. If any of these prejudged Melville, then members would be free to propose amendments or refer matters for further inquiry. Abbot's casting vote, therefore, was given not upon Melville's guilt but upon the merits of the question whether the house should be permitted to proceed to vote upon a matter of fact as a prelude to voting on a series of censure motions.

The speaker today is expected to refrain from politics, but in Abbot's day a limited degree of active engagement was tolerated, even expected. During committees of the whole house, when the chair was occupied by another member, the speaker might well contribute to general debate. This right was exercised sparingly, not least, as Abbot realized, because of the ‘inconvenience of being precluded afterwards … from explaining or defending any opinions in any subsequent stage of discussion’. Where, however, he perceived ‘subjects of a paramount importance’, he considered it not only a ‘personal duty’ to deliver his sentiments, but rather ‘in some degree an official duty’ (Hansard 1, 14, 1809, 837).

On 1 June 1809 Abbot spoke in committee on John Curwen's bill against electoral corruption. After citing precedents ranging from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, he stated that the abuses in question were ‘not only offences by the law of Parliament, they have been long since adjudged to be criminal by the common law of the realm’. He argued that Curwen's bill ‘should be in itself declaratory’ and on these terms earnestly hoped for the bill's successful passage because he believed it ‘indispensable to the honour of this House’. The speaker's conduct was widely praised. Several members prefaced their own comments with reference to his ‘high authority’, and one commended ‘the manly, dignified, and constitutional part he had … taken’ (Hansard 1, 14, 1809, 840, 841, 843, 846, 850). The following year Abbot was once more involved in controversy. On 6 April 1810 he issued a warrant for the arrest of the radical member Sir Francis Burdett for breach of privilege. Burdett had spoken in parliament against the arrest of a printer for criticizing the exclusion of strangers from a recent debate. Moreover, Burdett had arranged for the publication of his speech accompanied by an inflammatory address impugning the house for illegal conduct. This became a cause célèbre and three days of rioting took place before he submitted to arrest. A private prosecution was brought by Burdett against Abbot, who was granted a public defence by the attorney-general and acquitted in 1811. But the case was not finally resolved until Burdett's appeal was rejected by the Lords six years later.

During proceedings on the regency in 1810–11, Abbot initially maintained a strict silence. As he explained in a speech on 4 February 1811, the speaker ‘will be more likely to render his services satisfactory and effectual, by forbearing to mix in general debate’ (Hansard 1, 18, 1810–11, 1108). He intervened only at the point when the question was ‘reduced to the single issue respecting the form of our proceedings’. He made an authoritative declaration that the house was ‘legally assembled’ because ‘elected by the King's writ, prorogued by the King's commission, and met upon the day prescribed by the prorogation’. On the substantive question of how to substitute for the normal procedure of receiving the royal assent to legislation, he endorsed the ministerial suggestion to give assent by a commission of the great seal. The force of logic compelled him to favour restrictions because the office of regent must be defined and then modelled ‘into something that is not the King’, baldly stating that ‘two Kings at a time we cannot have’ (ibid., 18, 1810–11, 111).

In 1813 Abbot played a decisive role in thwarting Catholic emancipation. On 9 March he spoke in a committee on the state of the law, making a ‘warning protest’ against ‘a sweeping repeal of all known securities’ (Hansard 1, 24, 1812–13, 1205). Although willing to allow Catholics access to higher military office, he refused to countenance their admission to parliament. The decision of the committee went against him, however, and leave was granted to introduce a relief bill. He spoke against it at the committee stage on 24 May, playing upon traditional prejudices: that Catholics took oaths with mental reservations; that priests were notorious spies; and that a restored Catholic hierarchy would be beholden to the mandates of the pope. His proposed amendment to the bill was entirely destructive: that the words ‘to sit and vote in either House of Parliament’ be left out. It was passed in a full house by a majority of only four votes.

There was an embarrassing sequel to this episode. On 22 July 1813 Abbot performed his accustomed task of presenting supply bills for royal assent prior to the prorogation of parliament. It was traditional on such occasions for the speaker to deliver a short speech at the bar of the Lords. These formal orations rarely created controversy, but on this occasion Abbot blurred the distinction between his personal views and official duty. He referred to the house having adhered to ‘those laws by which the throne, the Parliament, and the government of this country are made fundamentally Protestant’ and having refused to consent ‘to allow that those who acknowledge a foreign jurisdiction should be authorised to administer the powers and jurisdictions of this realm’ (Hansard 1, 27, 1813–14, 475). This was inflammatory enough, but the suspicion that the regent had been active in canvassing against Catholic relief made matters worse, raising the constitutional spectre of crown interference in parliamentary proceedings. Abbot was subjected to a motion of censure on 22 April 1814, but was exonerated, partly because of speeches in his favour by Catholic sympathizers such as George Canning, but also because many members recognized his worth as speaker and were unwilling to risk losing him. His proven ability as chairman of the house was a decided advantage. One member, Frederick Douglas, stated that ‘they would run the risk of losing a person whose services were so eminently valuable … they were not to forget how often his judgement had been advantageously exercised on behalf of the House’ (Hansard 1, 27, 1813–14, 498).

On 30 May 1817 Abbot resigned because of ill health. He had long suffered from stomach and urinary ailments, compounded by recurrent back pain and occasional bouts of fainting and sickness. These he had borne bravely and without interrupting the business of the house. But he was finally driven to resign by erysipelas, an inflammatory disease of the face. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Colchester on 3 June 1817 and received a pension of £4000 for himself and £3000 to his heir. From 1819 to 1822 he travelled in France and Italy. Occasionally rumoured for high office, he supported the Liverpool ministry and particularly his mentor Addington, now Lord Sidmouth. He died at Spring Gardens, Whitehall, on 7 May 1829, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 14 May. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Charles Abbot, second Baron Colchester (1798–1867). Colchester's speakership had been distinguished by an unflagging determination to improve administrative functioning through rational reform. He had also ensured that his researches into the history of parliamentary procedure were carefully collated, preserved, and handed on to posterity through the medium of John Hatsell's revised Precedents of Procedure (1818). Abbot was the first speaker since Arthur Onslow to apply systematic analysis to the functioning of the chair, and his successors were greatly indebted to him.

Clare Wilkinson DNB

Artist biography

Lawrence, Sir Thomas (1769–1830), painter and draughtsman, chiefly of portraits, was born on 13 April 1769 at 6 Redcross Street, Bristol, the youngest of the five surviving children of Thomas Lawrence (1725–1797), then a supervisor of excise, and Lucy (1731?–1797), younger daughter of the Revd William Read and his wife, Sarah, née Hill. Through her father Lucy Lawrence was related to the Read family of Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, and she had connections through her mother with other county families. As many as perhaps eleven other children were born to her between 1754 and 1772, but all died in infancy.

Childhood and early activity

To a most unusual degree, childhood and early activity were synonymous in the life of Lawrence. His father moved from Bristol to Devizes in 1773, becoming landlord of the Black Bear, a well-known coaching inn of the London–Bath road. Within two or three years the very young Lawrence had revealed his talent for drawing, being capable particularly of sketching, in pencil, likenesses of people.

Visitors to Lawrence's father's inn included numerous social and cultural personalities, and the boy was much noticed by them—for his own sake and through the efforts of his proud, pretentious, and probably over-persistent father. Profile portraits in pencil of Lord and Lady Kenyon, who stayed at the Black Bear in 1779, document Lawrence's ability at that date (1779; priv. coll.). He would remain continuously at work as an artist for the subsequent fifty years, until the day before he died.

The boy Lawrence was early noticed, additionally, because of his handsome appearance and his gift for reciting verse, from Shakespeare and Milton. Fanny Burney recorded in April 1780 that she had found at the inn ‘a most lovely boy of ten years of age’ (Diary and Letters, 1.304), who possessed an astonishing skill in drawing. Mrs Lawrence informed her that he had already visited London and been pronounced a genius by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Another, more frequent visitor, David Garrick, seems to have seriously considered that the future career of the boy (not quite ten at Garrick's death) lay between painting and the stage.

Although early and usefully conditioned in social behaviour, with manners that were to be commented on later by contemporaries as extremely, if not excessively, polished, Lawrence received little formal general education. In adulthood, he wrote of his regret that his parents, for all their love, had not provided their son with ‘two or three parts in education of the utmost importance to the future happiness of the man’ (Williams, 2.43). He referred specifically to practical grasp on money matters, but must have intended a wider application.

Lawrence's father was naturally improvident, though naturally optimistic. In 1779 he was declared a bankrupt, and thenceforward his youngest son became the chief financial mainstay of the family. Some sort of promotional tour for him was conceived by Lawrence senior in or about 1780, beginning at Oxford, where his earliest biographer states that he took ‘the likenesses of the most eminent people’ (Williams, 1.67). The episode is obscure, however, since no such portraits have been identified, and the tour may in reality have been something of a failure.

After a short stay at Weymouth, the Lawrence family settled in Alfred Street at Bath. By 1783 Lawrence was practising mainly as a painter of small portraits in pastel, receiving for half-lengths 3 guineas, ‘at that time and for Bath a very extraordinary sum’ (Williams, 1.73). The medium of pastel was one Lawrence ceased to use after approximately 1790, and the majority of surviving pastel portraits from his years at Bath are no more than competent. But the lively, fashionable cultural milieu of the city was to be of great significance in his development, both artistically and emotionally.

Still only in his teens, Lawrence was yet able at Bath to emancipate himself—to some degree—from his father. Among collectors and connoisseurs he found several friendly patrons and admirers who allowed him access to drawings, prints, and other works of art they owned—thus firing him with a passion to collect himself, as well as giving him some contact with the greatest Italian old masters, supremely Michelangelo. Writing to Charles Eastlake in 1822, he described how he had used to copy, ‘Night after Night’, prints after the prophets and sybils of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and he characterized his mind at that period as being ‘however fettered, strongly and singularly excited’ (Layard, 170). One potential patron offered to finance his journey to Italy, though obtuseness or self-interest led his father to refuse. But Lawrence was also made welcome socially, especially in the sympathetic family circle of a local physician, Dr William Falconer; he was probably the first of those older male figures who would become father-surrogates throughout Lawrence's life. And at Bath, Lawrence's enthusiasm for the theatre resulted in his seeing and being fascinated by Mrs Siddons, with whose two elder daughters, Sally and Maria, he was later to be romantically entangled.

Lawrence's artistic education seems to have been no more firmly grounded than was his general education. He passed as self-taught, though at Bath he most probably had some lessons in handling of oil paint from the fashionable elderly portrait painter William Hoare, whose son Prince Hoare remained a supportive friend. It was apparently in 1786 that he painted in oils a large composition of Christ bearing the cross (lost), which is likely to have been copied or derived from William Hoare's painting of the same subject (St Michael with St Paul Church, Bath). A copy made by Lawrence in crayons of Raphael's Transfiguration (Yale U. CBA) gained him the award in 1784 of a silver palette and 5 guineas from the Royal Society of Arts in London. All the evidence suggests that in these years he aspired to a future not merely as a painter of portraits but as an artist in the grand manner. However fruitful Bath had been in his development, it could not compete with all the advantages of London. In 1787 Lawrence left Bath for London and was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools there.

First years in London

In going to London, Lawrence had taken a decisive step. He remained based there for the rest of his life. He moved from a first address at 4 Leicester Square to 41 Jermyn Street, then to 24 Old Bond Street, and next to Greek Street, Soho, where his parents lived with him. He retained the house until he finally settled in a large house at 65 Russell Square (des.), where he lived by himself from 1813 until his death.

Lawrence soon ceased to attend the Academy Schools. His proficiency in drawing was recognized at once as outstripping all his fellow students. He sent several works, in pastel, to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1787, and in 1789 he exhibited a full-length portrait in oils, Lady Cremorne (1788–9; Tate collection) which, despite some stiffness in the pose and face, is remarkable for its bravura passages of paint, especially in the sky and landscape. In a letter written to his mother in Bath, dating from either 1787 or 1788, he made the characteristically hedged yet extraordinarily confident declaration, ‘To any but my own family I certainly should not say this; but excepting Sir Joshua, for the painting of a head, I would risk my reputation with any painter in London’ (Layard, 7–8).

The year 1790 marked full public recognition of Lawrence's achievements, in terms of prestige as well as of art. In that year he exhibited at the Royal Academy twelve portraits, among them two full lengths, the actress Elizabeth Farren (1789–90; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Queen Charlotte (1789–90; National Gallery, London). Reviews of the exhibition warmly praised both paintings, which rank among his finest achievements. Paint is handled with a richness, crispness, and confident pleasure seldom seen in British art, while the likenesses and costumes are seized with equally pleasurable confidence. And complementing the freshness of portrayal is a vivid, fresh response to differing aspects of English landscape.

Lawrence had been bidden to Windsor in September 1789, to paint the queen and also Princess Amelia (1789; Royal Collection). Although the queen's portrait was not acquired by the king, Lawrence at twenty had received his first important royal patronage. Gainsborough was dead, and Lawrence was widely recognized as the successor to Reynolds, whose health and art were in decline. George III pressed the Royal Academy to elect him an associate in 1790, but it refused because of the regulation against election of associates aged under twenty-four. However, it elected him the following year. When Reynolds died in 1792, the king appointed him painter-in-ordinary. In 1794, at the earliest permitted age of twenty-five, he was elected a full academician.

During the 1790s Lawrence seems to have believed that he could combine activity as a portrait painter with producing occasional history paintings. At the Royal Academy in 1791 he exhibited, as well as several portraits, a small history painting, Homer Reciting his Poems (1790; Tate collection), a composition commissioned by the antiquarian scholar and connoisseur Richard Payne Knight. The effect is of a pastoral landscape, attractive but hardly ambitious, nor particularly classical in mood. More interesting may have been the Shakespearian subject Prospero Raising the Storm (exh. RA, 1793), a large canvas he is said to have later utilized for the portrait of John Philip Kemble as Rolla (1800; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA).

In 1797 Lawrence exhibited his most ambitious attempt at a history picture, turning back for inspiration to Milton's Paradise Lost, the poem which had been a source for recitation and delineation by him from his boyhood. The huge canvas of Satan Summoning his Legions (1796–7; RA) was his final effort to create a grand historical composition. It was very unfavourably received, but Lawrence himself defiantly continued to esteem it. After seeing it again in 1811, he wrote despondently of experiencing a sense of ‘the past dreadful waste of time and improvidence of my Life and Talent’ (Layard, 84). Darkened though the painting now is, and extremely difficult to assess, it is by no means unimpressive, for all the old master echoes and its debt to the style of Fuseli.

The 1790s proved testing for Lawrence in numerous ways. In 1797 first his mother and then his father died, and between the two deaths he reflected ruefully on the differences of character and disposition separating himself from his ‘essentially worthy’ father, concluding, ‘To be the entire happiness of his children is perhaps the lot of no parent’ (Williams, 1.186). Later in the same decade he conducted a highly charged, frustrated love affair involving both Sally and Maria Siddons, and profoundly perturbing Mrs Siddons. Maria died in 1798, and Sally in 1803. Like his two brothers, Lawrence was never to marry.

From very early on in his London years Lawrence established links of unfailing friendship with the interrelated families of William Lock, of Norbury Park, Surrey, and John Julius Angerstein, of Woodlands, Blackheath, Kent. Both were collectors and became his patrons, and through Angerstein's stepdaughter, the wife of Ayscoghe Boucherett MP, he became friendly also with the Boucherett family of North Willingham, Lincolnshire. As well as painting portraits of various members of these families, he made several tender and charmingly informal drawings of the children and of the mothers, for example, Amelia Angerstein, née Lock, nursing a baby (inscribed ‘Willingham 1810’; priv. coll.). The most important of all friendships was the one that he early established with the much older fellow artist Joseph Farington, who advised and guided him until the latter's death in 1821. Farington's now fully published Diary provides a mass of information about Lawrence's personal, financial, and artistic affairs but attempts no overall view of the man.

The opening years of the nineteenth century

The first years of the new century were probably the most difficult and stressful in Lawrence's life and career. In 1801 he wrote privately to Mrs Boucherett of feeling ‘shackled into this dry mill-horse business’ of painting portraits, which must yet be gone through, ‘with steady industry’ (Williams, 1.222). A sense of being thus ‘shackled’ seems to have continued to haunt him. And in the same letter, with accidental accuracy, he assumed that half his life was already over.

Lawrence's debts became a crippling burden from which he never escaped. He had been generous with financial help to his family, and would always be so to other, often younger, artists. He spent large sums on artistic materials, as well as on adding drawings to his collection. Contemporary rumours of his gambling, or even of being blackmailed, appear groundless; and it seems much more likely that his temperament and upbringing united to leave him bewildered or bored by the demands of prosaic daily existence.

By 1807 Lawrence's affairs had fallen into the gravest confusion. He owed more than £20,000. For Farington he drew up a detailed estimate of work to be done and moneys to be earned, with highly optimistic totals inserted, implying almost unceasing labour. Farington responded prudently by advising him to consult the well-disposed banker Thomas Coutts, providing him with an explicit statement of all debts, and warning him against presuming on too large an income until ‘you have worked off much of the heavy load of unfinished pictures’ (Layard, 54–5). Work though he did, that was a goal Lawrence would never achieve.

During these years Lawrence's art revealed virtually nothing of his private difficulties. He continued to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy, with portraits which were often rightly hailed as remarkable for their originality as well as for their sheer accomplishment. It seems clear that the prospect of public exhibition, with the concomitant requirement to meet a fixed date, acted upon him as a necessary and almost essential spur.

Many commissions remained unfinished, and patrons complained bitterly. But Lawrence could produce portraits which ranged from agreeable presentation of well-bred children and fashionable women to such a tough, characterful depiction as Lord Thurlow (1802–3; Royal Collection), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803 to a chorus of praise. In 1806 he contributed a bravura variation of the mother and child theme in a large, richly coloured portrait, in tondo format, of the duke of Abercorn's mistress, with her son, tactfully entitled A Fancy Group (1805; priv. coll.). In the following year his chief exhibit was a group portrait, at once dignified yet animated, of the financier Sir Francis Baring with his brother, John, and son-in-law, Charles Wall (1806–7; priv. coll.). It too was well received, though Lawrence was piqued by comments in the Morning Chronicle, whose editor, James Perry, championed the rival portraitist John Hoppner.

Hoppner was patronized by the most fashionable and influential figure in society, the prince of Wales, who did not employ Lawrence at that period. The prince's near-ostracism of Lawrence probably arose not only from opposition to those favoured by his father but because Lawrence had been patronized by the princess of Wales, Caroline of Brunswick. At the Royal Academy in 1802 he showed a somewhat hectic full length of her with her daughter, Princess Charlotte, (1801–2; Royal Collection), and his own conduct in connection with the princess came under review in the ‘delicate investigation’ of 1806. While entirely cleared of any impropriety, he is likely to have appeared tainted in the prince's eyes simply by association with his estranged wife.

The not unexpected death of Hoppner in January 1810 removed Lawrence's chief competitor, leaving him conscious that their long, acrimonious rivalry had ended without any reconciliation. It must be more than coincidence that in the same year he raised the prices of his portraits, from 200 guineas to 400 guineas for a full length.

The pattern of Lawrence's existence was apparently set. He painted unremittingly, seldom entertained, and tended to prefer a modest social life spent in the company of ungrand, sometimes unmarried female friends. Some kind of amitié amoureuse seems to have developed between him and Mrs Isabella Wolff, née Hutchinson, who separated from her husband, Jens Wolff, the Danish consul in London, about 1810. Lawrence had begun a beautiful, profoundly meditated portrait of her in pensive mood several years before, but finished it only years later, for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1815 (c.1803–1814/15; Art Institute of Chicago). Until her death in 1829 she was probably the most important person in his emotional life.

The regent's patronage and travel abroad

In or about 1810 Major-General the Hon. Charles Stewart, Lord Castlereagh's half-brother and later third marquess of Londonderry, sat to Lawrence for the first time. The resulting portrait (not certainly identifiable) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the following year. More important than the painting was the unexpected friendship which quickly sprang up between the painter and the aristocratic soldier-cum-diplomat, nine years his junior. Lawrence would greatly benefit from being under Stewart's aegis abroad, and characterized him later as ‘one of the most zealous friends that ever man had’ (Williams, 2.463).

Almost certainly it was Stewart who stimulated the prince regent's interest in Lawrence's work, persuading him in 1814 to sit for a first full-length portrait, in field marshal's uniform, commissioned by Stewart himself (1814–15; priv. coll.). The timing and tone were especially happy, since Napoleon had been defeated and banished to Elba, and the regent had become convinced of his own prominent part in Napoleon's overthrow.

In the same year, two of the allied sovereigns, King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, with their leading generals, respectively Blücher and Platov, arrived in London. In an atmosphere of victorious celebration the regent commissioned from Lawrence full-length portraits of all four personalities, and of the duke of Wellington, as well as a half-length of Metternich (all Royal Collection). The portraits of Blücher, Platov, Wellington, and Metternich were worked on with notable speed and shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1815, where Mrs Wolff's portrait was the sole example by Lawrence of a female sitter.

The instigation for what eventually became the complete series of portraits by Lawrence in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle can be traced back to the poet Lady Anne Barnard. According to Farington, she wrote in April 1814 to the prince regent, proposing that a composition of himself with the tsar and the king of Prussia should be painted, by Lawrence, ‘to commemorate the great events’ (Farington, Diary, 13.4496). And she had proposals for at least one other composition.

With collective good sense, all those involved preferred to avoid group portraits, or high-flown subjects, and single portraits of individuals were settled on. Pace the usual assumption, however, the tsar (who took every opportunity to disoblige the regent) seems to have given Lawrence no sittings on his visit to London later in 1814. And a major set-back to proceeding with the scheme, in both triumphalist and in practical terms, was caused by Napoleon's return from Elba in 1815. Nevertheless, partly as preparation for his proceeding to the continent to paint the allied sovereigns, Lawrence was knighted by the regent in April of that year.

Lawrence's first visit abroad was to Paris in September 1815. There, following the battle of Waterloo and Napoleon's final exile, most of the treasures looted for the Musée Napoléon were being returned to their respective countries. Lawrence saw for the first time the original of Raphael's Transfiguration (Vatican Gallery, Rome), which he had copied as a boy. And in Paris, Lord Stewart (as he had become) was there to welcome him. Lawrence painted no portraits but clearly hoped to have some of his work shown in the city. He also met and became very friendly with the sculptor Antonio Canova, who sat to him a month or two later in London for a fiery, Byronic portrayal (1815–16; Gipsoteca Canoviana, Possagno).

In 1816 Lawrence was called to give evidence to a House of Commons committee on whether the nation should acquire the Elgin marbles (British Museum) and strongly argued for acquisition. In the same year Stewart responded to Lawrence's expression of ‘still anxious desire’ to paint the tsar by suggesting ‘a tremendous journey’, to St Petersburg, after a preliminary stay in Vienna, where he might paint the emperor and empress and Napoleon's son (Layard, 100–01). Nothing came immediately from this bold proposal, but Lawrence received fresh royal favour when Princess Charlotte, recently married to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, chose him to paint her portrait, intended as a birthday present for her husband. It was in tragic circumstances that Lawrence eventually took the finished painting (1817; Belgian Royal Collection) to Claremont to show Prince Leopold. The princess had died in November 1817, after giving birth to a stillborn son. Because of her pregnancy, she had been painted at home, giving Lawrence the opportunity to observe the royal couple closely. In his letters he wrote of their life together, and he described in touching and acute detail, worthy of any diarist of the period, his interview with the bereaved prince.

Lawrence himself suffered in 1818 the deaths first of his brother, Major William Lawrence, and then of his young niece, Susan Bloxam, daughter of his sister Ann. He heard of her death while at Aix-la-Chapelle in the autumn of that year, having resumed his mission of painting the allied sovereigns, gathered there for the peace negotiations. He completed his portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia (1814–18; Royal Collection) and began a seated full length of the Austrian emperor (1818–19; Royal Collection), but seems to have found most inspiration—and challenge—in working on the full-length portrait of the tsar (1818; Royal Collection). Reporting minutely on the first sitting, he recorded the tsar's opening words, in English: ‘I am glad to see you. I am very glad in forming my acquaintance with you’ (Layard, 136). While pleased and relieved by the portrait's subsequent enthusiastic reception within the tsar's circle, he confessed privately that he had ‘less and less confidence as I grow old’ (Layard, 139).

From Aix, Lawrence travelled on to Vienna, where he remained for some months, until May 1819. He was received everywhere and enjoyed much social as well as artistic success. Although busy professionally, he was able, thanks to Lord Stewart, to witness imperial occasions of the greatest magnificence. He undertook several private commissions, for both paintings and drawings, and among his sitters was the young duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon's son (1818–19; Harvard U., Fogg Art Museum).

Before leaving Aix, Lawrence had learned of the prince regent's wish that he should proceed from Vienna to Rome to paint full lengths of the pope, Pius VII, and his chief minister, Cardinal Consalvi, to complete the Waterloo Chamber series. The news was not entirely palatable, and he arrived in Rome in May 1819 ‘with many apprehensions, indeed, of failure’ (Williams, 2.193).

But Lawrence was at once welcomed warmly by both the cardinal and the pope, treated as a guest distinguished in his own right and as the emissary of the regent. Accommodation was provided for him in the pope's own palace of the Quirinale. And he found himself befriended by artists such as Canova and by distinguished foreign visitors like the Austrian foreign minister, Prince Metternich, in addition to such admiring English residents as Elizabeth, the duchess of Devonshire.

In Rome, Lawrence was much less active artistically than he had been in Vienna, concentrating his energies on the two important commissions. He produced a brilliant, swift-seeming study in scarlet of the alert, benevolent cardinal, but approached the subject of the aged pope in, as it were, a slower tempo, with respectful rapport and greater subtlety. The pope gave him nine sittings, and he created a masterpiece. He sincerely admired his subject, who had survived so much, and conceived of him as an enlightened patron of the arts, and a symbol, too, of Europe restored to calm, with some of the most famous, restituted treasures of Vatican sculpture visible at the left of the composition. Lawrence exhibited the portrait in Rome to much, probably genuine, praise, though it was never seen publicly in England during his lifetime.

In December 1819 Lawrence turned north from Rome, hastily visiting Florence, Parma, and Venice, impressed most perhaps by what he saw of the work of Correggio and Parmigianino at Parma. He was back in England at the end of March 1820, to find that the regent had succeeded George III.

The final decade

Comparable elevation in his own sphere awaited Lawrence. Shortly before he returned to England, Benjamin West had died, and with the news Lawrence received an intimation that the Royal Academy proposed to elect him president in West's place. He was elected almost unanimously and set off for Brighton, to seek a first audience in his new capacity with the new king. George IV marked his appreciation of the Royal Academy's action, and of Lawrence's distinction, by presenting him (and his successors) with a gold chain and medal bearing the king's likeness. Close artistic and human affinity united monarch and painter in a way unknown in England since the time of Charles I and Van Dyck.

Personally without vanity, Lawrence urged that as president, and as an artist honoured by a successful major royal mission abroad, he should be assigned a position in the splendid coronation procession of 1821. Some of his finest and most subtle late portraits, like that of Princess Sophia (1825; Royal Collection), were commissioned by George IV. And it is apt that the last painting ever touched by Lawrence, shortly before his death, should have been yet one more version of his official portrait of the king.

As regent, George IV had posed for Lawrence for a swagger full-length portrait in Garter robes and had at once recognized it as the best likeness painted of himself (1818; Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin). As king, with or without further sittings, he established the composition as his standard image, the Garter robes replaced by coronation robes (1821; Royal Collection). Numerous versions were worked on in Lawrence's studio. The king also sat for a much more sober portrait in ‘his private dress’ (1822; Wallace Collection, London), mildly ridiculed by some contemporaries but which Lawrence perceptively thought ‘perhaps my most successful resemblance [of him] … and the most interesting’ because of its domestic nature (Williams, 2.319). It became familiar through being engraved.

George IV sent Lawrence on one last mission abroad, to Paris in August 1825, with the not very inspiring task of painting Charles X and the dauphin, the duc d'Aumale (1825; Royal Collection). The French king had earlier in 1825 appointed him a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur, and he received him with marked graciousness, presenting him with—among other gifts—a set of Sèvres porcelain. Lawrence rose to his task adroitly and wrote letters home describing his reception and the charming informality of the king's grandchildren playing around boisterously during the first sitting.

Lawrence's international reputation was recognized by a succession of honours from foreign academies of art, including those of Rome (1816), Florence (1820), Venice (1823), Denmark (1823), and New York (1818). From his status and official position flowed numerous obligations, many performed, it seems, more dutifully than eagerly, and as printed his annual addresses to the Royal Academy students can only be termed insipid. But he made a point of being accessible and helpful to younger, sometimes foreign, artists, and would thus be gratefully remembered by, for instance, Eugène Delacroix. On the death of John Julius Angerstein in 1823 he actively urged the retention of his collection in Britain, for the nation, and was appointed one of the superintending body (later trustees) when the government purchased the collection and the National Gallery was founded in 1824.

Despite the pressures upon him, Lawrence's art preserved all its vitality, while gaining in empathy and depth. To the annual Royal Academy exhibitions he regularly managed to send some six or more new portraits, and the range of his sitters was matched by the range of his interpretation. With absolute assurance he captured the bright-eyed vivacity of the two very young Calmady girls (1823–4; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the stony, quasi-judicial severity of an octogenarian in Lady Robert Manners (1825–6; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). Simplicity and directness characterize his Lady Blessington (c.1821; Wallace Collection, London). A quite unusually serious, Wordsworthian blending of sublime natural setting and reflective child gives resonance to the deservedly famous portrait Charles William Lambton, ‘The red boy’, (1824–5; priv. coll.).

In this artistically fruitful autumnal period, Lawrence acquired a new and distinguished patron in Robert Peel, the most discerning perhaps of all his patrons. For Peel he painted several family portraits—notably that of his wife (1826–7; Frick Collection, New York), conceived in pictorial homage to Rubens's Chapeau de paille (National Gallery, London), then owned by Peel, but a tribute also to Lawrence's personal response to the sitter. In addition, Peel had him paint portraits of political associates, destined for Drayton Manor, his Staffordshire country house. The less elaborately composed of those are the more impressive, and among the best is the simple portrait The Earl of Aberdeen (1829; priv. coll.). Peel mentioned it approvingly in a letter of October 1829 to his wife, ‘a most beautiful head’ (Private Letters of Sir Robert Peel, 116), and it was praised in the press when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830, following Lawrence's death.

Lawrence died very suddenly on 7 January 1830 at home in London. He had become increasingly susceptible to the chill winter weather and to physical languor. Yet in his last few days he dined with Peel, who commissioned from him a self-portrait, and had earlier been concerned to send his sister Ann, Mrs Bloxam, a print after his drawing of a new young actress who fascinated him, Mrs Siddons's niece, Fanny Kemble. A detailed account of the last, fluctuating week of his life was drawn up by a devoted female friend, Miss Elizabeth Croft. She was in the house but not present when he fainted and died while being attended by his faithful valet, Jean Duts.

Lawrence was slightly under average height and seems to have retained a trim figure all his life. His appearance in middle age in documented by a rare self-portrait (c.1825; RA), unfinished but in its cool, discreet, impersonal air suggestive of a temperament kept under tight rein. He shows his head bald and his face pale yet barely marked by signs of age.

Lawrence's true character remains largely opaque. But a salient trait of it was kindness and consideration to his servants. Reluctant to paint himself, he seems to have been comparably reluctant to reveal himself unreservedly in his usually rather stilted letters. Contemporaries tended to find him suavely polite, though notably reticent. Thomas Moore concurred with a friend's hostile opinion that the man was ‘oily’ (Journal, 3.973). In 1821 Byron recalled having met Lawrence at Earl Grey's in 1814, when he ‘talked delightfully’ (Byron's Letters and Journals, 8.28). Miss Croft wrote down some recollections of their nearly thirty-year acquaintance which provide many welcome human details but lack focus and coherence.

Posthumous events and reputation

The suddenness of Lawrence's death shocked society. He had long been established as the leading portrait painter in England and was a familiar social figure. Almost every prominent person of the day—with the exception of Byron—had been painted by him. And his lifetime had remarkably spanned the generations in two centuries. As a boy he had been acquainted with Garrick, and he himself, painting Princess Mary, the duchess of Gloucester (1824; Royal Collection), was mentioned by Queen Victoria as one of her earliest recollections (Princess Marie Louise, 156).

Lawrence's funeral, held at St Paul's Cathedral on 21 January 1830, was an elaborate and public occasion, with Peel and Lord Aberdeen among the pallbearers. Although The Timeshad, the previous day, announced that a private carriage of the king's would follow immediately behind the coffin, the king was not represented amid the numerous carriages sent by the nobility and others, often Lawrence's sitters, who did not bother to attend. Among the Royal Academicians present was J. M. W. Turner, who made a watercolour sketch of the scene, ‘from memory’ (1830; Tate collection). Lawrence was buried in the cathedral.

Despite the public tributes, Lawrence's reputation was already starting to dwindle, and even the intentions in his will failed to be accomplished. In that document of 1828 his bequests had included one to the Royal Academy of the set of Sèvres porcelain given him by Charles X of France. He had also desired that his superb collection of old master drawings should be offered successively to George IV, the British Museum, Peel, and the earl of Dudley, for the sum of £18,000, which was far below his expenditure on it or its total value. But all those approached declined the offer.

Lawrence had died so deeply in debt that even the bequest to the Royal Academy could not be fulfilled. His possessions, including his collection of drawings, were dispersed in a series of sales. The impressive scope of his collection, with chronology of the various sales, is set out concisely in F. Lugt's Les marques de collections de dessins & d'estampes. Eventually, most of the drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo entered the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

To Lawrence's executor, Archibald Keightley, fell the task of dealing not only with his tangled affairs but also with the contents of his studio, in which remained over a hundred unfinished portraits, several begun many years before, in addition to some sitters' personal property. Keightley scrupulously sifted every claim and drew up a detailed list of 430 items (V&A).

Beyond Keightley's care was the reputation of Lawrence. By the mid-nineteenth century, reaction against the world represented by the regency and by George IV was as much moral as aesthetic. ‘Tawdry and beautiful’ were Thackeray's words, denigrating Lawrence's portraits in Vanity Fair (Thackeray, chap. 49), though that ambivalent verdict shows a consciousness of their appeal unlikely to have been shared by most of Thackeray's contemporaries. Not until the beginning of the twentieth century were any serious attempts made in England to assess Lawrence's achievements as an artist. But he recovered neither popularity nor critical favour. His untraditional, un-English virtuosity, especially in handling oil paint, probably helped to make his work suspect, and it seems significant that some of his greatest paintings (such as Elizabeth Farren) left England for the United States. There his work has been far more warmly and widely appreciated. Yet the shrewdest summing-up of his gifts came from Roger Fry, who emphasized his unerring eye and hand: ‘he showed a consummate mastery over the means of artistic expression’ (Fry, 91).

For delicacy and precision, Lawrence is rivalled as a draughtsman in his own period only by Ingres. As a painter of portraits in oil, he had an uncanny ability to create not merely accurate, if often flattering, likenesses, but eyes, flesh, and clothing invested with an astonishing, disturbing illusion of actuality. In that achievement he has subsequently been approached only—and to a lesser degree—by John Singer Sargent.

Major, pioneering scholarship on Lawrence during the second half of the twentieth century was carried out single-mindedly by Kenneth Garlick. He championed the artist, clarified many questions, and produced exemplary catalogues of his work in all media. But at the end of that century Lawrence had still to receive just and general appreciation in Britain.

Michael Levey  DNB