sit for their portraits. Doubtless this was excellent for custom, but it did not avail altogether, for the Bristol house on the great Bath Road soon passed into the hands of unsatisfied creditors, and the family moved, not without considerable private aid, to the Black Bear Inn at Devizes, then a place of importance to the coaches passing on their way to and from the west. At Devizes the boy received a little education, nothing better than a smattering, and was called upon at short intervals to exhibit his precocity. He soon found an influential and appreciative audience.
A large proportion of those who patronised the Black Bear Inn were men of position and culture; they could not only appreciate the boy’s gifts, but could reward them. Indeed we read that a few years later the elder Lawrence received an offer from one of his old-time visitors, Sir Henry Harpur, to send the boy to Italy and have his gifts developed in the best schools. Unhappily the father knew as much about art as he did about inn-keeping; he was indignant rather than pleased with the suggestion that foreign study could improve the child’s gifts. “My son’s talents,” he replied, “require no cultivation,” and this answer says more for his stupidity than all his repeated failures to adapt himself to any one of the many occupations he followed so unsuccessfully until the time came when he could live in comparative affluence upon the proceeds of his boy’s talent. Doubtless in the latter days he ever prided himself upon the discernment that had kept the lad by his side.
The artist’s earliest work would seem to have consisted of chalk drawings which were produced with great rapidity and sold to his father’s customers for half a guinea or a guinea each. The likeness in each case must have been good, for it is on record that one of his earliest efforts, a sketch of Lady Kenyon, who stayed at his father’s inn with her husband, was easily recognised five-and-twenty years later. But drawing was not the only accomplishment of his early days. He was, as has been remarked earlier, a clever reciter. Garrick heard him twice when he was a lad, and on the second occasion asked his father if “Tommy was to be an actor or a painter?” The father had no doubt at all about the profession that promised to be the more profitable, and, in later years, when the artist was very anxious to go upon the stage, was at great pains to persuade him not to do so. As his son was more intent upon helping the family than anything else, the advice was taken, and doubtless the results justified it. The theatre could have offered no equal reward for talent, however great. To the end of his days the painter was a fluent reciter, and possessed a mastery over his voice that could turn every tone into a caress. More than one woman was misled by it into thinking that the artist was seriously in love with her.
As early as 1785 young Lawrence received his first public recognition; it came from the Society of Arts, which was then quite a serious rival of the Royal Academy. He sent a copy on glass of a Transfiguration, perhaps one he had seen at Corsham House, the seat of the Methuen family. It was made two years before, when the painter was fourteen years of age, and although the rules of the Society did not admit of a work being put in for competition more than a year after it was painted, the Council felt bound to make an exception in this case, and presented him with five guineas and a silver-gilt palette. For a boy, and he was nothing more, this was a considerable triumph, but it had been led up to by much startling work at Devizes and Oxford. When young Lawrence was ten years old, Daines Barrington (Gilbert White’s correspondent) had referred to him as “a lad who can copy historical pictures amazingly, and is likewise an excellent reader of blank verse.”
From Devizes the family had gone to Oxford, where they lived and thrived upon the proceeds of the boy’s pencil. Among his sitters were the Bishops of Oxford and Llandaff, Earls Bathurst and Warwick, Countess Egremont, and many others. The visitors to the inn at Bristol and Devizes had spread his fame, and Oxford was such a liberal patron that Thomas Lawrence, senior, moved to Bath, where he took a house at one hundred pounds a year rental as a boarding-house. Sitters were expected, and did not fail. Here it was that young Lawrence painted Mrs. Siddons for the first time, that Sir Henry Harpur offered to adopt him, and that Hoare the painter, to whom the boy was indebted for many hints, wanted him to sit for a picture of the youthful Christ. Small wonder that if at the age of seventeen, after he had taken up oils instead of crayon, and had copied a certain number of old masters—Rembrandt, Reynolds, Titian—his thoughts turned to London, the Mecca of all British art pilgrims; and he wrote to his mother with the unblushing confidence of youth to say, he “would risk his reputation for the painting of a head”—the reputation of seventeen years—“with any save Sir Joshua.” Gainsborough, Romney, and Hoppner were very much in evidence then, and the challenge would seem an odd one if it had been more than a lad’s confidential boast to his mother.
PLATE IV.—MISS GEORGINA LENNOX, AFTERWARDS COUNTESS BATHURST
(In the collection of Earl Bathurst)
Fine colouring and effective modelling are noticeable qualities in this, one of the painter’s highly successful portraits. Here we have a painting that does not suffer from the costume of the sitter and a rather daring but completely fortunate effect in the contrast between the curtain background and the dress. The landscape is, as usual, quite conventional and uninspired.
So he came to London, entered himself as an Academy student, and took apartments in Leicester Fields, a district made popular by Sir Joshua. His father was behind him in all this; and as there was some money in hand, and a good send-off was necessary, an exhibition of the boy’s work was arranged. To make it still more attractive, the worthy innkeeper included a collection of stuffed birds recently acquired. Between the amateurs of art and ornithology the exhibition fell to the ground; it was a failure unredeemed. Happily the funds were still sufficient to enable young Lawrence to take a house in Duke Street, St. James’, and a studio in Jermyn Street near by. Hoare introduced him to Sir Joshua, for whom Lawrence’s admiration was ever whole-hearted. The great painter looked at his work, and remarked, “Study nature—study nature.” In years to come, looking at some of the famous early portraits, he remarked with the rare generosity that was one of his characteristics, “This young man has begun at a point of excellence where I left off.”
Success did not come with Lawrence from the provinces; a few years were to pass before it visited him in London and elected to remain associated with his work as long as he lived. He found many friends, and was much at the house of Mrs. Siddons, whose portrait as Zara he had painted four years earlier. Her family consisted then of two boys, Henry and George, and two daughters, Sarah Martha (Sally), then twelve years old, and Maria, aged eight. It was round the lives of these two girls that the strangest romance of Lawrence’s life was to be woven. Both Sally