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National Gallery to acquire Sir Thomas Lawrence’s ‘The Red Boy’ for the Nation

Issued July 2021

The National Gallery has entered into a commitment to purchase 'Portrait of Charles William Lambton' (1818-31) by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830).

The 1825 work – world renowned as ‘The Red Boy’ – was made when Lawrence, one of the first trustees of the National Gallery, was at the height of his powers as painter and portraitist, a year after the Gallery opened to the public in 1824. Such is its status, in 1967 ‘The Red Boy’ was the first painting ever to be included on a British postage stamp.

This is a unique opportunity for the Gallery to acquire an exceptionally important painting by one of the finest European portraitists of the early 19th century, which is of outstanding significance for British national heritage.

The painting is being offered from a private collection by private treaty sale via Christie’s, at a special price of £9.3 million.

The funding is made up of a generous commitment from the American Friends of the National Gallery, plus funding from other sources including donations from individuals and charitable trusts, restricted grants, and legacies already made to the National Gallery. This includes a significant bequest from the estate of Miss Gillian Cleaver, and donations from The Al Thani Collection Foundation, The Manny and Brigitta Davidson Charitable Foundation and other donors.

Art Fund has generously supported the acquisition with a grant of £300,000.

The National Gallery shall pay in instalments and will assume legal title (fully own the painting) when the full purchase price has been paid before the end of December 2021.

The portrait of Charles Lambton, commissioned by his father John George Lambton (1792-1840), created 1st Earl of Durham in 1833, caused much comment on its first exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1825 - 'The Times' remarking on the sparkling intelligence of youth’.  The portrait of the six- or seven-year-old boy shows Lawrence’s mature powers to the full, in the open but pensive glance, the elegant but informal pose with the bent arm reflecting the Renaissance artist’s traditional depiction of melancholy, the bravura painting of the red velvet suit, and the extraordinary and unusual background. Lawrence has placed his sitter outdoors at night, seated on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, with moonlight reflected in the water – it has been suggested that he might have been inspired by Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, brought to London in 1785 and perhaps exhibited there in 1818 (it did not enter the National Gallery collection until 1880).  The effect is undoubtedly romantic, and Lawrence may have intended his setting to characterise the young boy as being on the cusp of a journey through life - although he was not to know when painting this, that his young sitter was to tragically die at the age of only 13 from tuberculosis. 

The Gallery currently has five portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence* - but all are from the very early part of his career. ‘The Red Boy’, an ambitious and poetic work on an unexpectedly large scale for a portrait of a young child, is very different from the society portraiture which was Lawrence’s ‘bread and butter’ and fully demonstrates his powers in maturity.  In ‘The Red Boy’ Lawrence shows how he continued to develop the deeply European sensibility which enables him to be compared to artists such as David, Delacroix, and Goya.

‘The Red Boy’ will undergo conservation treatment before going on display at the National Gallery early next year.

The National Gallery is grateful to Christie's for their support in ensuring this work joins the nation’s collection.

Christine Riding, Jacob Rothschild Head of the Curatorial Department, says 'The acquisition of Lawrence’s sensitive portrait of youth, Master Lambton: ‘The Red Boy’, is a dream come true for everyone who loves British art. Its presence at the National Gallery will allow us to show the intimate relationship between Lawrence, Gainsborough, Constable and many other European artists and paintings in the nation’s collection at Trafalgar Square.'

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says 'Lawrence’s Portrait of Master Lambton, known as ‘The Red Boy’, is a tour de force of technical brilliance and at the same time a moving representation of a young boy becoming self-aware. This dazzling portrait will join other superb child paintings at the Gallery, including works by Murillo, Hogarth, Liotard, Gainsborough and Vigée Le Brun. I am confident that when it is acquired it will quickly become a much-admired painting for all our visitors.'

Jenny Waldman, Director of Art Fund, said 'The Red Boy is an outstanding and tender portrait by one of Britain’s most distinguished painters at the height of his powers. Art Fund are delighted to support the acquisition of this painting, which is a national treasure. We are thrilled that The Red Boy will join the National Gallery collection for the enjoyment of future generations.'

Notes to editors

* They are Queen Charlotte (1789), John Julius Angerstein, aged about 55 (about 1790), Portrait of the Hon. Peniston Lamb (about 1790), Portrait of the Hon. Emily Mary Lamb (1787-1869), later Countess Cowper and Viscountess Palmerston (1803) and John Julius Angerstein, aged over 80 (1824).

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) was the leading British portrait painter of the early 19th century, portraying most of the important personalities of the day in his polished and flattering style. He was a child prodigy and largely self-taught; at the age of 10 he was making accomplished portraits in crayon. He was influenced by Sir Joshua Reynolds during his youth; his style developed very little throughout his life. Lawrence was born in Bristol, moved with his family to Devizes and then to Bath. He took to painting in 1786 and became a pupil at the Royal Academy school in 1787. In the following year, at the age of 19, he exhibited his first portrait. In 1794 he became a member of the Academy and Painter-in-Ordinary to the King (George III) on the death of Reynolds in 1792. He was knighted in 1815 and became President of the Academy five years later. He was also a collector and formed one of the finest collections of Old Master drawings ever known.

The American Friends of the National Gallery is an independent charity based in the United States that supports the work of the National Gallery in the United Kingdom. It welcomes gifts from individuals, foundations and corporations who wish to contribute towards the work of one of the world's premier art galleries. Grants from AFNGL to the National Gallery have supported the acquisition of such masterpieces as Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, Titian's Diana and Actaeon and Bernardo Daddi's The Coronation of the Virgin. More at www.

Art Fund is the national fundraising charity for art. It provides millions of pounds every year to help museums to acquire and share works of art across the UK, further the professional development of their curators, and inspire more people to visit and enjoy their public programmes. In response to Covid-19 Art Fund has made £3.6 million in urgent funding available to support museums through reopening and beyond, including Respond and Reimagine grants to help meet immediate need and reimagine future ways of working. Art Fund is independently funded, supported by the 130,000 members who buy the National Art Pass, who enjoy free entry to over 240 museums, galleries and historic places, 50% off major exhibitions, and receive Art Quarterly magazine. Art Fund also supports museums through its annual prize, Art Fund Museum of the Year. In a unique edition of the prize for 2020, Art Fund responded to the unprecedented challenges that all museums are facing by selecting five winners and increasing the prize money to £200,000. The winners are Aberdeen Art Gallery; Gairloch Museum; Science Museum; South London Gallery; and Towner Eastbourne

The National Gallery is one of the greatest art galleries in the world. Founded by Parliament in 1824, the Gallery houses the nation’s collection of paintings in the Western European tradition from the late 13th to the early 20th century. The collection includes works by Bellini, Cézanne, Degas, Leonardo, Monet, Raphael, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens, Titian, Turner, Van Dyck, Van Gogh and Velázquez. The Gallery’s key objectives are to enhance the collection, care for the collection and provide the best possible access to visitors. Admission free.

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Sir Thomas Lawrence
'Charles William Lambton'
Unframed H 137.2 x W 111.8 cm
Private collection
Image © The National Gallery, London 
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