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Sir Thomas Lawrence, Charles William Lambton

Key facts
Full title Portrait of Charles William Lambton (‘The Red Boy’)
Artist Sir Thomas Lawrence
Artist dates 1769 - 1830
Date made 1825
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 140.5 × 110.6 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with the support of the American Friends of the National Gallery, the Estate of Miss Gillian Cleaver, Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), The Al Thani Collection Foundation, The Manny and Brigitta Davidson Charitable Foundation, Mr William Sharpe, and The Society of Dilettanti Charitable Trust, 2021
Inventory number NG6692
Location On loan: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, Chimei Museum, Tainan City, Taiwan
Collection Main Collection
Charles William Lambton
Sir Thomas Lawrence

This portrait of Charles William Lambton - aged six or seven - was commissioned by the boy’s father John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, a Whig politician and MP for County Durham. Popularly known as The Red Boy, it remained in the Lambton family until it was acquired by the National Gallery in 2021. It is acknowledged as one of Thomas Lawrence’s masterpieces and, a sign of the image’s enduring popularity, it was the first painting to be reproduced on a British postage stamp in 1967.

Sitting on a promontory overlooking a moonlit sea, Lawrence portrays Lambton as a child wanderer, lost in contemplation of the sublime power of nature. The flowers opening next to him symbolise his young age. He is at the beginning of his journey through life, though this was cut short - he died of tuberculosis aged only thirteen. Lawrence may have been inspired by the work of Lord Byron or by William Wordsworth’s poem There was a Boy (1798).

Unlike Gainsborough’s famous portrait, The Blue Boy (1770, The Huntington Art Museum, San Marino) who wears a seventeenth-century ‘Van Dyck’ costume, The Red Boy is dressed in the contemporary children’s fashion of loose-fitting clothes. Several of Lawrence’s young sitters wear these red velvet ‘skeleton suits’ which were roomier and better for playing outdoors and which, by 1800, had replaced Van Dyck dress for children of wealthy families.

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