Sir Thomas Lawrence by Michael Levey - review by John McEwen

John McEwen

Gilty Love

Sir Thomas Lawrence


Yale University Press 345pp £45

A small point of etiquette – why is it Sir Thomas Lawrence but not Sir Michael Levey? Sir Michael, of course, was knighted for his directorship of the National Gallery. And no one has done more to rescue the reputation of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), the most successful British portraitist of the nineteenth century: child prodigy, already in professional demand by the age of ten; Painter to the King at twenty-three in succession to Reynolds; Royal Academician at the youngest permissible age of twenty-five; and President of the RA for the last ten years of his life.

And yet immediately Lawrence died a reaction set in – bordering, as Levey says, ‘on revulsion’ – which, at least in England, has ‘never entirely vanished’. Levey concludes that part of the problem is that Lawrence’s originality – he was largely self-taught and left no followers – poses problems for

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