Thomas Lawrence was only 20 when he painted this, one of the most brilliant of all royal portraits. Yet it failed to please either King George or Queen Charlotte and did not enter the Royal Collection. It remained on Lawrence’s hands and was in his studio sale after his death.
Lawrence painted Queen Charlotte in Windsor Castle – the Chapel of Eton College can be seen in the distance. The Queen was troubled by her husband’s protracted mental illness and was in no mood to sit for the young painter. The sitting on 28 September was probably the only one she gave him. Lawrence found it hard to animate her expression, and had to repaint her features several times.
Lawrence has given the pearl bracelets, decorated with the King’s portrait and his monogram, a significant role in the portrait, as if demonstrating the Queen’s unwavering loyalty to her husband amid his difficulties.
Thomas Lawrence was only 20 when he painted this, one of the most brilliant of all royal portraits. Yet it failed to please either King George or Queen Charlotte and did not enter the Royal Collection. It remained on Lawrence’s hands and was in his studio sale in 1831 after his death.
Queen Charlotte (1744–1818) was born in the small North German duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She arrived in England on the day before her marriage to George III on 8 September 1761 and was jointly crowned with him on 22 September 1761. The art historian and politician Horace Walpole described her as ’sensible and quick‘ in understanding with ’much grace in her manner‘ but no one pretended that she had good looks. Her devotion to the King was absolute, despite many trials, and she bore him 15 children, all but two surviving infancy.
Lawrence painted Queen Charlotte in Windsor Castle, possibly at the suggestion of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Lady Cremorne, who Lawrence had portrayed the previous year (Tate, London). The Queen was troubled by her husband’s protracted mental illness and by political events unfolding in France and was in no mood to sit for the young painter. The sitting on 28 September was probably the only one she gave him.
The Queen arrived wearing a bonnet, but since Lawrence objected to it she decided to sit bare-headed as her hair was noted for its beauty. Although one of her daughters read to her, this did not lift her spirits. Reportedly the Queen also found Lawrence’s suggestion that she should converse with her daughter to animate her features ’rather presuming‘. Infrared and X-ray images of the head show that Lawrence found it hard to enliven her expression, and had to repaint her face several times.
Lawrence implored the Queen for one more brief sitting so that he might paint her jewels, several of which were wedding presents from the King. The Queen refused, but allowed the Assistant Keeper of her Wardrobe to model the jewellery for Lawrence.
The pearl bracelets, decorated with the King’s portrait and his monogram, were especially important to the Queen. Lawrence has given them a significant role in the portrait, as if demonstrating her unwavering loyalty to her husband amid his difficulties. The notes of black in the hair bows lead our eye to the scarf, bracelets and pattern of lozenges in the carpet, lending elegance to the Queen’s figure. The building glimpsed through the trees in the background is the Chapel of Eton College, Windsor, established by Henry VIII.
The King told Lawrence to have the finished portrait engraved, as he planned to send it to his relatives in Hanover. Lawrence’s shortage of money saved the portrait from export as he couldn’t afford to have it engraved. Although the Queen considered the portrait a failure, it met with critical acclaim at the Royal Academy. On seeing the young Lawrence’s exhibit of 11 paintings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Academy’s president, is said to have remarked to Lawrence, ‘In you, sir, the world will expect to see accomplished all that I have failed to achieve’. On Reynolds’s death in 1792, Lawrence was appointed Principal Painter to the King.
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