His father was an innkeeper, first at Bristol and afterwards at Devizes, and at the age of six Thomas was already shown off to the guests of the Black Boar as an infant prodigy who could sketch their likenesses and declaim speeches from Milton. In 1779 the elder Lawrence had to leave Devizes, having failed in business and the precocious talent of the son, who had gained a son of reputation along the Bath road, became the support o the family. His debut as a crayon portrait painter was made at Oxford, where he was well patronized, and in 1782 the family settled in Bath, where the young artist soon found himself fully employed in taking crayon likenesses of the fashionables of the place at a guinea or a guinea and a half a head. In 1784 he gained the prize and silver-gilt palette of the Society of Arts for a crayon drawing after Raphael's "Transfiguration," and presently beginning to paint in oil.
Throwing aside the idea of going on the stage which he had for a short time entertained, he came to London in 1787, was kindly received by Reynolds, and entered as a student at the Royal Academy. He began to exhibit almost mmediately, and his reputation increased so rapidly that he became an associate of the Academy in 1791. The death of Sir Joshua in 1792 opened the way to further successes. He was it once appointed painter to the Dilettanti society, and principal painter to the king in lieu of Reynolds. In 1794 he was a Royal Academician, and he became the fashionable portrait painter of the age, having as his sitters all the rank, fashion and talent of England, and ultimately most of the crowned heads of Europe. In 1815 he was knighted; in 1818 he went to Aix-la-Chapelle to paint the sovereigns and diplomatists gathered there, and visited Vienna and Rome, everywhere receiving flattering marks of distinction from princes, due as much to his courtly manners as to his merits as an artist. After eighteen months he returned to England, and on the very day of his arrival was chosen president of the Academy in room of West, who had died a few days aefore. This office he held from 1820 to his death. He was never married.
Sir Thomas Lawrence had all the qualities of personal manner and artistic style necessary to make a fashionable painter, and among English portrait painters he takes a high place, though not as high as that given to him in his lifetime. His more ambitious works, in the classical style, such as his once celebrated "Satan," are practically forgotten.
The best display of Lawrence's work is in the Waterloo Gallery of Windsor, a collection of much historical interest. "Master Lambton," painted for Lord Durham at the price of 600 guineas, is regarded as one of his best portraits, and a fine head in the National Gallery, London, shows his power to advantage. The Life and Correspondence of Sir T. Lawrence, by DE Williams, appeared in 1831.
See also: English school of painting
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.