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Intimate portraits, psychological insights


Mary Hamilton
Detail of a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, pencil and red and black chalk
Image: British Museum

Lawrence grew up with his parents at the Black Bear, a coaching inn on the London–Bath road. At ten he was ‘a most lovely boy’ who liked to recite Shakespeare and who possessed an astonishing skill in drawing and capturing the likenesses of travellers. Sir Joshua Reynolds and David Garrick thought he was a prodigy. His father, eternally optimistic and eternally improvident, went bankrupt and at ten the boy was supporting his family.

By the time he was 19, Lawrence was in London, and had become friends with the artist William Hamilton. They used to draw together in the evenings from antique casts while William's wife Mary read to them 'either poetry, history, or works of the imagination'. Lawrence was 20 years old when he drew Mary's portrait.

The drawing is part of a new exhibition at the British Museum, which features nearly 200 portraits - self-portraits, intimate portraits of the artists’ families and friends and celebrities. The materials range from pencil, chalk, watercolours and pastels to miniatures on ivory.

In addition to Lawrence the artists include Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, John Downman, Richard Cosway and David Wilkie. Their portraits span the century between 1730 and 1830. Many have never been exhibited before and all of them provide some psychological insights.

Lawrence's delicately beautiful full-length portrait of Mary reveals an undisguised tension between her vivid face and quiet hands, her sophisticated hat - this is the lady I long to be - and her simple frock. Lawrence, drawing an antique cast as she read to her husband and to him, noticed this. Her husband, perhaps, did not. Their marriage did not turn out well.

I am struck by the lovely eagerness of Lawrence's hand and the wealth of portraits he and his fellow artists drew and painted.

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