A Coloured Canvas: Lives, loves and losses in the artistic heart of Regency England

A Coloured Canvas – ebook

A Coloured Canvas (published by Australian eBook Publishers; available on Amazon, Apple I-books, Google Play and others) is a novel about Sir Thomas Lawrence, an English portrait painter at the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries but, as the sub-title suggests, it is much more than a biography.

Using extensive research into letters, newspapers and comment of the time, I explored the influence his father and many close friends exerted on Lawrence’s career as it developed from child prodigy and West Country sketcher to become portraitist of Kings and Queens, Popes and Emperors, Prime Ministers, distinguished diplomats and sportsmen. He was to be knighted by George IV and appointed President of the Royal Academy.

I singled out some of his subjects for their particularly intriguing stories, and I have, I hope, told those with humour and insight. Among them are the beautiful but confused Mr Bell, the unprepossessing but clever Irish politician, Mr Curran, and the irascible artist, Henry Fuseli. Though they respected the other’s work, Lawrence and Fuseli were neither rivals nor admirers one of the other.

Thomas Lawrence self-portrait as a young boy

I use these stories to comment on the turbulent politics of the times which stretched from the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and, throughout, the problems in Ireland.

Lawrence’s career took off when, at the age of six, he started impressing patrons at his father’s Black Bear Inn in Devizes, Wiltshire by sketching their ‘portraits’.

Thomas Lawrence self portrait as a young man

All sorts of people stopped at the Black Bear on their way from London to Bath, among them actors including the celebrated David Garrick and, just perhaps, the young Sarah Siddons, as yet unknown but on her way to becoming the leading tragedienne of the period. Did he draw her likeness then? Did she recognise in the boy and herself potential for greatness? Was that the beginning of the long and tempestuous relationship between the renowned artist and the Siddons/Kemble family?

Every year from 1789 when he was twenty his work was shown at the Royal Academy Exhibition. His best known studies, though not always his best liked, were ‘Pinkie’ (Sarah Barrett-Mouton), a wintry portrait of Miss Elizabeth Farren and the gigantic ‘Satan’ in which he blended the most imposing features of two friends: the handsome head of actor John Philip Kemble and the powerful physique of champion boxer Gentleman John Jackson. His studies of children and their pets were, and still are, well loved.

Sketch of Sarah Siddons as Zara by Thomas Lawrence, age 13 (Bath Newseum)

The distinguished career was not without its problems. Despite his huge output and ever-increasing income, he was never out of debt and yet he was known to be far from profligate in his personal life. His family, which he supported for most of his life, was a willingly accepted burden; he spent, often unwisely, on works of art and the latest domestic innovations like a plumbed (but cold water) bath. His friends and advisers, Joseph Farington and John Julius Angerstein helped him organise his budget and kept him out of the bankruptcy court.

And throughout his life at all its stages, Sarah Siddons: her actor brothers, John Philip and Charles Kemble, her husband-manager William Siddons who disliked and disapproved of Thomas, and above all her two daughters, sweet Sally and selfish Maria, contenders for his love in their different ways. An intense, difficult triangle that drove him to the brink of madness—or was it a quadrangle?