Portrait of the Regency: Vanity and Good Taste

On the eve of the Regency, Miss Eliza Farren was accounted one of the finest actresses of her day. From her first role as Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, to her appearance as Nimeney Pimeney in The Heiress, her skill at playing a variety of characters was like Sir Thomas Lawrence’s in painting them.

Hazlitt speaks of "Miss Farren, with her fine-lady airs and graces, with that elegant turn of her head and motion of her fan and tripping of her tongue." Sir Thomas has captured her winsome nature perfectly.

“Miss Farren, with her fine-lady airs and graces, with that elegant turn of her head and motion of her fan and tripping of her tongue.” — Hazlitt

Around 1790, he painted her portrait, wrapping her elegant figure, tall and slim, in a fur trimmed “john-coat.” Some critics disapproved of this raiment, so at odds with the subject’s summery surroundings. Comments such as these did not concern Sir Thomas. After all, he was the artist.

When the portrait was presented to the Royal Academy, simply entitled “The Actress,” Sir Thomas was roundly attacked for addressing the glorious Miss Farren as a mere hireling on the stage. This criticism needled him, for it was not his art that was at fault, but his taste!

He wrote at once to Miss Farren, knowing one word from her would dispel any criticism by her beloved fans. He apologized for the clumsy way he meant to convey his own admiration for her art, which sprang

“..from the wish that he had that it should be known to be her from the likeness alone, unaided by professional character.”

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

Two years later, the unsold portrait and its subject had caught the eye of Lord Derby. Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, was still married to his first wife, but they were separated on account of her affair with the Duke of Dorset. His lordship, through the offices of Miss Farren, offered to buy the painting.

Sir Thomas informed Miss Farren he was willing to sell it, but the price for her portrait was now one-hundred and twenty guineas. She wrote back, expressing her astonishment and chastising him for having forgotten the original quote of sixty guineas. In the end, the besotted Lord Derby possessed himself of the portrait, if not the sitter, for a princely sum of one hundred guineas.

Unfortunately, the picture continued to plague Sir Thomas even after it was delivered. Apologizing for being so “troublesome,” Miss Farren wrote to him of additional criticisms, and would he pretty please alter the picture?

He reminds me of another earl. Or perhaps its because Downton is on.

From this angle, Derby looks a bit like Downton, I daresay.

“One says it is so thin in the figure, that you might blow it away–another that it looks broke off in the middle: in short, you must make it a little fatter, at all events, diminish the bend you are so attached to, even if it makes the picture look ill; for the owner of it is quite distressed about it at present.”

We don’t know if Sir Thomas complied, but in 1797, Miss Farren married her earl, and

“exchanged the tinsel crown of the stage for the very substantial coronet of a countess.”


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.


Portrait of the Regency: A Nightmare

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was a Swiss painter unwelcome in his native country due to some political trouble. He eventually settled in England, where he became a stalwart at the Royal Academy and a master of Romantic painting.

In his spare time, he translated Homer for Cowper and Lavater’s work on physiognomy for England. He later declared, after Mrs. Fuseli had to bar his studio against an infatuated Mary Wollstonecraft:

“I hate clever women. They are only troublesome.”

Henry Fuseli by Northcote

Henry Fuseli by Northcote

Critics called his art, “Rubens in motion.” His figures writhe with violence, his incredible beasts glare fantastically. Regency era sensibilities were most particularly challenged by his painting, “The Nightmare.”

Naturally, Sir Thomas Lawrence couldn’t wait to tell Miss Croft just how timid a fellow this painter of supernatural visions really was.

Fuseli had been invited to spend an evening at a wealthy patron’s country house. After dinner, as the ladies retired to the drawing room, the artist got up from the table and left as well. The gentlemen wondered why the guest of honor had abandoned them but consoled themselves with the notion that foreigners disliked sitting after dinner.

When the ladies returned, without Fuseli, the host demanded of his lady where she’d put him. Remonstrances were exchanged while someone was dispatched to the artist’s room in the event he’d gone there to be sick.

He wasn’t there.

As is often the case with these country house mysteries, a breakthrough came by means of an unexpected observation from “below-stairs.” In this case, it was the lowly footman who found himself the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny when he admitted having directed Fuseli to the garden temple, a noted feature of the estate’s grounds, despite the gathering darkness.

The servant had tried to press upon him certain items for protection:

“What you bring that great big stick for?” asked Mr. Fuseli in his broken English.

“Why, Sir, our house dog is let loose after dark, and as he is rather fierce, you’d better take the stick.”

— — Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-Bag, ed. by George Somes Layard, with recollections by Miss Elizabeth Croft (1906)

Fuseli refused to take either lantern or cudgel, and dismissed the footman upon arriving at the garden fixture. When his hosts at last discovered him, he was still inside, cowering in a state of considerable disorder.

It seems he’d heard loud sniffing at the door soon after he’d been left at the temple, which turned into blood-curdling snarls and growling. Unable and unwilling to leave the temple, and so far removed from the house no one could hear his cries, Fuseli became terrified at the prospect of spending the night in the pagan temple, at the mercy of a demonic dog.

The Nightmare, by Fuseli

The Nightmare, by Fuseli

It was an anecdote Miss Croft declared:

“I am almost ashamed to repeat.”

Thank goodness for lack of scruples.


Portrait of the Regency: “To Any Body, Any Where”

Returning to Miss Croft’s remarkable collection of anecdotes recorded of Sir Thomas Lawrence; the following story, while not precisely contemporaneous to the Regency, is nevertheless illuminating of the times.

It concerns the painter’s younger days when he enjoyed the patronage of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. It was she who had engaged him at a young age to draw the portrait of her first child, later known as Lady Carlisle. He was frequently among the Devonshire set as he grew older. Miss Croft surmised that it was this period of his life by which he achieved his air of amusing urbanity.

Regrettably, among her many foibles, the Duchess was quite unable to turn down any application made to her for aid. She made promises she could not keep. She committed largesse she did not have.

One of the Duchess’ good friends was a Mr. Hare (surmised to be Francis Hare-Naylor, grandson of the Bishop of Chichester) a man who apparently knew Georgiana quite well, and was forever heartsick at the scrapes she found herself in. Many of these were of her own making, but few could admonish her like Mr. Hare:

“He had a peculiar talent for reproving a fault without giving offense to the party committing it.”

–Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter -bag, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, Elizabeth Croft

Her Grace's portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence--when she was about 25 years of age

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Thomas Lawrence when she was about 25 years of age

Sir Thomas had the opportunity to witness Mr. Hare’s skill in this regard one evening, when he was invited to Her Grace’s salon at Devonshire House. There, the painter joined by several great Whigs of the day, including Mr. Fox and Mr. Sheridan. Mr. Hare was there, too, and of course the Duchess was presiding. However, she jumped up to leave, having remembered she needed to write a letter.

Protestations were heard all round.  Mr. Hare declared he must write the letter in her stead, for her company was too dear to spare.

“.she laughingly inquired how that was possible, as he knew not her correspondent or her business.”

He proceeded to write a letter in full view of the company, full of voluminous expressions of admiration and a longing to serve, followed by a catalogue of many competing commitments to other friends similarly situated and the limitations on her ability to serve same, closing with “new professions of services at some future time.”

Her Grace admitted that the letter would serve her purpose very well, to everyone’s amusement. Even more amused were they as Mr. Hare signed the letter in the Duchess’ name.

But when she dared Mr. Hare to address it properly, the amusement ended.

“He very gravely folded and sealed it, and then wrote, to:

“Any Body, Any Where.”

Georgiana’s eyes filled with tears. It was some time before she could regain her composure, however, Mr. Hare remained in her good graces. Apparently she could not admonish one who knew her so well.

All that's left of Devonshire House--the gilt leopards on the gates

All that’s left of Devonshire House