Spot the difference

January 7 2014

Image of Spot the difference

Picture: NPG, London (left), National Gallery, London/Executors of the late 9th Marquess of Londonderry (right)

A new loan has recently gone on show at the National Gallery in London - Sir Thomas Lawrence's magnificent and important portrait of Charles Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry (above right, and zoom in here). The picture, lent by the executors of the 9th Marquess, means that two Lawrences of the same subject are in adjacent museums, for next door in the National Portrait Gallery (image here) is another version of the same picture (above left).

The question is, which came first? Despite the NPG and NG websites dating the pictures 1812 and 1814 respectively, it's not entirely clear (according to Kenneth Garlick's Lawrence 1989 catalogue raisonne) which one Lawrence painted first.

The NPG version shows the sitter's star and sash of the Order of the Bath, which he was awarded in 1813, but these are in fact a later addition, and in any case,the portrait is clearly signed and dated '1812'. Interestingly, though, Lawrence's friend Joseph Farington called the NPG version Lawrence's 'second* portrait of the General', which complicates matters a little. It's possible that there is another, now lost, earlier portrait of the same sitter by Lawrence, which led Farington to call the NPG picture Lawrence's 'second' portrait, and it is true that an untraced portrait of Londonderry by Lawrence was exhibited at the RA in 1811. However, Garlick notes that the 1811 may in fact relate to the NG picture, which is not signed or dated. So it's all quite confusing.

A first hand inspection would doubtless reveal which version had the more spontaneous, and thus original handling, but - alas! - the NPG version is not currently on display  [a reader, below, assures me that - contrary to their website - the NPG picture is on display].

*this crucial word 'second' was unaccountably omitted from the NPG's catalogue entry on the picture in their 2011 Lawrence exhibition.

Update - a reader writes:

I visited both the NG & the NPG last week, both versions of the Lawrence portrait of the Marquess of Londonderry were on display. The version on loan to the NG in my opinion is the most spontaneous, it looks very fine, British Gallery.

Another reader reminds me that the below unfinished portrait by Lawrence of Londonderry was sold in New York in 2006 at Christie's (for $174,000). In the catalogue entry, Garlick speculates that this picture could be the portrait exhibited in 1811, but (rightly, I think) wonders if it is too unfinished to be an exhibited picture. Christie's dated it to c.1813-15. Farington tells us in any case that the picture exhibited in 1811 was a half-length.

Update II - I went to see both pictures today. There's not much doubt in my mind that the version now in the National Gallery was painted first. It is altogether more spontaneous, and more vigorous in the handling, with many 'wet in wet' passages where the paint has been melded seamlessly together. One gets a clear sense that Lawrence was exploring the canvas, colour and details with his brush, whereas in the NPG version it seems clear that he knew what was going where. The NPG version is all autograph, but it just feels as if Lawrence was painting something for the second time. For example, the handling in areas such as the red and gold braid around the sword is almost pedestrian in the NPG version, but in the NG picture the paint feels more alive. There is also what appears to be a pentimenti in the NG version, between the sitter's neck on the left hand side and the end of the sword.

It's possible that Lawrence, who very rarely signed pictures, put his name to the NPG version specifically to make sure that people knew he himself painted the second picture (rather than a studio assistant, as often happened with replicas). The fact that the NG picture came first makes sense of the Farington passage I quoted above, where he describes the NPG version as Lawrence's 'second' portrait (and remember, we know he had seen the first one before in 1811). Therefore, I suspect that Garlick's 1989 hunch was right, that the NG picture was that exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1811.

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