Portrait of the Regency: Face to Face

It’s been said Sir Thomas Lawrence’s legacy was left to “fashionable, virtuoso photography,” and not to the art of painting. His portrait exhibitions attracted large crowds, satisfying the Regency era’s appetite for more than just of glimpse of the rich and famous.

Now one could gaze as long as one liked, without appearing vulgar, on the visage of the Prince Regent, or on the bosom of Lady Blessington.

Exhibition room at Somerset House by Rowlandson and Pugin

In her recollections of Sir Thomas, Miss Elizabeth Croft describes the artist’s interest in physiognomy. After years of portraiture, he became convinced of the power a person’s facial characteristics exercised over their character, and their actions.

Once he rehired a servant he had formerly sacked. It seems the fellow was unable to find a new position, and Sir Thomas knew it was because of his chin:

“..an organ of destructiveness so strongly defined I fear he will never get another place.”

Miss Croft questioned his faith in such reasoning when he showed her a portrait he had sketched of the alleged murderer, John “Murphy” Williams. This was the man who’d been jailed, pending trial, for the notorious Ratcliff Highway murders which occurred near present-day Wapping, London, within a space of twelve days in December, 1811. Much struck by the villain’s pleasant features, she recalled:

This post-mortem sketch of John Williams might very well be by Lawrence

This post-mortem sketch of John Williams might very well be by the artist

I never saw a more beautiful head. The forehead, the finest one could see, hair light and curling, the eyes blue and only half-closed; the mouth singularly handsome, tho’ somewhat distorted, and the nose perfect.”

— Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-bag, edited by George Somes Layard, 1906 (with recollections of the artist by Miss Elizabeth Croft)

How could Ratcliff Highway murderer have such a beautiful head, she asked, when he’d:

“…destroyed not only a father and mother..but an infant a few weeks old in its cradle–and all this for the purpose of rifling the till in a little haberdasher’s shop!”

Sir Thomas chastised her gently, drawing her attention to the similarity of Williams’ chin to that of Governor Wall, hung for acts of cruelty while in charge of a colony on the west coast of Africa. In sketching both, he noted:

“..the formation of the lower jaw was precisely the same–very square, with a peculiar shortness of the chin, and partaking more of the tiger than the human jaw.”

Of his own chin, he admitted:

“..there is some appearance of Fortitude, but wholly unconnected with Reason. Indeed, of that Philosophy which can mould wishes to circumstances and subdue the influences of Passion to those of Fortune, this Countenance has not a Vestige (!)”

He looks a bit sulky, I declare.

Yes, I do see the Fortitude. And Passion.


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