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Oil painting - Head of an Old Lady, possibly the poet and classicist Elizabeth Carter
  • Head of an Old Lady, possibly the poet and classicist Elizabeth Carter
    Lawrence, Thomas PRA
  • Enlarge image

Head of an Old Lady, possibly the poet and classicist Elizabeth Carter

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (made)

  • Date:

    late 18th century (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

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

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by John M. Parsons

  • Museum number:

    504-1870

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This oil sketch of an unknown, elderly woman has traditionally been attributed to Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). It is similar to other sketches by Lawrence which show the sitter’s head fully worked up in oil and a sketchy outline of the sitter’s figure and pose. The status of this sketch is unclear but it, and others, may offer an 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 an elderly lady, full-frontal, with head worked up in oil and shoulders sketched in black chalk.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (made)

Date

late 18th century (painted)

Artist/maker

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

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas

Dimensions

Height: 23 in approx., Width: 19.75 in approx., Height: 58.4 cm, Width: 50.1 cm, :

Object history note

Bequeathed by John M. Parsons, 1870

Historical context note

Head of an Old Lady is a head-and-shoulders portrait of an elderly sitter. It has been attributed to Lawrence in spite of its omission from Kenneth Garlick’s catalogue raisonné on Lawrence (K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings, Oxford and London, 1989). The portrait is typical of Lawrence’s method of sketching a sitter’s features in black chalk onto the canvas first, then painting the head fully in oil.

The sitter bears a strong resemblance to Lawrence’s near-profile portrait of the famous poet and classicist, Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), in the National Portrait Gallery, dated c.1788-89 (NPG28), and it is possible that the V&A portrait could be related to this painting. However, it is more likely to be the unfinished portrait of Carter by Lawrence listed in his posthumous sale of 1831 as lot 43 (Remaining pictures and unfinished sketches of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Christie’s, London, 18 June 1831); this is almost certainly lot 55 in the later Carpenter sale of 1867 (Catalogue of the collection of pictures of William H.Carpenter, Christie’s, London, 16 February 1867). A pencil sketch of lot 55 by George Scharf in the margins of this last-mentioned catalogue is very similar to the V&A head and is inscribed ‘unfinished’ and ‘bare canvas’, both features of the V&A portrait. There is also a reference to an unfinished head-and-shoulders portrait of Carter in oils in a letter from Lawrence to Farington, 5 May 1809, RA LAW 1/213 (see Lucy Peltz in A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz, (eds.), Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, Yale and London, 2011, p.136; see also Garlick 1989, p.166). There is a further reference to an unfinished head of Carter by the Revd Montagu Pennington, Mrs Carter’s nephew, who wrote in the Memoirs of the Life of Mrs Carter in 1807, published in 1807, ‘There are several original pictures of Mrs Carter…Lawrence [sic] began one a few years ago, which promised to be a great likeness, but was not finished’. Further research may well strengthen the link between the V&A painting and those mentioned in the 1831 and 1867 sales.

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 the 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 an initial sitting with a subject, intentionally laid aside (Lawrence, or an assistant, then painting a copy of it or reworking it on another canvas). As such it may stand as an autonomous work of art in its own right (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). 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 in his studio.

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, Head of an Old Lady, possibly the poet and classicist Elizabeth Carter, attributed to Sir Thomas Lawrence, British school, late eighteenth century

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

K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings, Oxford and London, 1989
Remaining pictures and unfinished sketches of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Christie’s, London, 18 June 1831
Catalogue of the collection of pictures of William H.Carpenter, Christie’s, London, 16 February 1867
Lucy Peltz in A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz, (eds.), Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, Yale and London, 2011, p.136
Revd Montagu Pennington, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, London, 1816

Materials

Oil paint; Canvas

Techniques

Oil painting

Categories

Paintings; Portraits

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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