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Oil painting - Portrait of Lady Lea

Portrait of Lady Lea

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Britain (painted)

  • Date:

    late 18th century (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Lawrence, Thomas PRA (Sir), born 1769 - died 1830 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil and chalk on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Mrs M. V. Cunliffe

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Head of Lady Lea is a sketch of a sitter whose identity remains uncertain. It is similar to other sketches by Lawrence which show the sitter’s head, fully worked up oil, against a penumbra of dark-brown paint and a sketchy outline of the sitter’s figure and pose. The status of this sketch is unclear but it, and others, may offer a valuable insight into Lawrence’s working method. Lawrence was the most celebrated portraitist of his age, both at home and abroad, and was patronised by international statesmen and society figures as well as royalty and military leaders.

Physical description

Portrait of a young woman, three-quarter face, turned to the viewer's left, of the head and neck but with shoulders lightly sketched in, with dark-brown hair.

Place of Origin

Britain (painted)


late 18th century (painted)


Lawrence, Thomas PRA (Sir), born 1769 - died 1830 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil and chalk on canvas


Height: 49.8 cm, Width: 41.9 cm, Height: 626 mm frame, Width: 547 mm frame, Depth: 40 mm frame, :

Object history note

This painting was sold at Christie's, 3 March 1922 (Lot 75). See 'A Catalogue of the paintings, drawings and pastels of Sir Thomas Lawrence by Kenneth Garlick in Walpole Society, Volume 39, 1964, page 123.

Historical context note

Head of Lady Lea is, in spite of its title, an oil sketch of a sitter whose identity remains uncertain. Kenneth Garlick noted in his catalogue raisonné of Lawrence’s paintings that ‘Lea’ could be a misspelling of ‘Leigh’ (K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings, Oxford: London, 1989, p.221). If we accept Garlick’s premise, the sitter may be Margarette, daughter of the Revd. William Shippen Willes of Astrop House, Northamptonshire. She married Chandos Leigh, who was created Baron Leigh of Stoneleigh in 1839, and died in 1860. Her parents were both painted by Lawrence (see The Reverend William Shippen Willes, whereabouts unknown, and Mrs William Shippen Willes, Private collection, in Garlick, 1989).

Head of Lady Lea is typical of Lawrence’s method of creating a loose sketch of the sitter’s head and pose in black chalk, then working up the head only in oil. The result is a head, luminous against a patch of dark ground (for a discussion of this type, see Lucy Peltz in A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz, (eds.), Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, Yale and London, 2011, p.289). The pose of the sitter, with an elongated neck, resembles other female sitters; for example, Miss Clements, Private Collection, and The Hon. Sophia Upton, whereabouts unknown, cat. no. 191 and cat. no. 781, Garlick, 1989). It is characteristic of the deliberate distortions found in Lawrence’s work which allude to his pursuit of idealized beauty - influenced by the works of Italian Mannerist artists such as Parmigianino (see Albinson, Funnell and Peltz, (eds.), 2011, p.282).

The status and purpose of the sketch is ambiguous but sheds light on the evolution of a portrait in Lawrence’s studio. Its unfinished state may allude to its role as a preparatory study for a larger work, to be worked up by Lawrence or his assistants. Alternatively, due to pressures of work, it may be one of many unfinished portraits in Lawrence’s studio. Additionally, given the sheer volume within Lawrence’s oeuvre of these types of painted heads set against an area of dark brown paint, it may represent Lawrence’s initial sitting with a subject, intentionally laid aside (Lawrence then painting a copy of it or reworking it on another canvas). As such it stands as an autonomous work of art in its own right (for a discussion of this type see Lucy Peltz in Albinson, Funnell and Peltz, (eds.), 2011, p.289). This group of painted heads is distinct from Lawrence’s chalk-on-canvas drawings which also stand as autonomous works of art (see A. Cassandra Albinson in Albinson, Funnell and Peltz, (eds.), 2011, p. 133). Lawrence wrote when only twenty: ‘I should think it always better that the picture, whatever it is, be first accurately drawn on the canvas, because tho’ it may be afterwards effaced by the colour, yet it serves to impress the object on the memory…’ The V&A work, and other sketches of its kind, may reflect the importance Lawrence attached to this careful preparation spent studying his subject.

Lawrence was the most celebrated portraitist of the Regency and Napoleonic age, both in England and abroad. His prodigious talent was early recognised when George III appointed him painter-in-ordinary in 1792 at the age of twenty three. Soon after, in 1794, the Royal Academy of Art elected him as a full academician. He later became its President in 1820, having been knighted in 1815. Lawrence was known for his technical brilliance and as well as painting oils, which showcase his bravura brushwork, he executed delicate pastel portraits.

Descriptive line

Oil painting, Portrait of Lady Lea, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, British school, late eighteenth century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Victoria and Albert Museum Department of Prints and Drawings and Department of Paintings, Accessions 1963 . London: HMSO, 1964.
K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings, Oxford: London, 1989, p.221


Oil paint; Canvas




Paintings; Portraits


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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