A New Portrait for Bath: Thomas Lawrence’s sketch for Arthur Atherley by Amina Wright, Holburne Museum
Early in 2016, following a successful fundraising campaign, the Holburne Museum in Bath purchased Thomas Lawrence’s preparatory oil sketch for one of his most celebrated paintings, Arthur Atherley (left). This is the first oil painting by the great Royal Academician to enter the Holburne’s important collection of British eighteenth-century portraits.
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) lived and worked in Bath during his teens, from 1780 to 1787. Born in Bristol, he was the most successful artist from the West Country in the generation following Sir Joshua Reynolds, and is arguably one of the finest British portrait painters of all time. The Lawrence family moved to nearby Devizes in 1773, where Thomas’s father ran a coaching inn, and his precocious son showed off his talents in both drawing and acting to such influential guests as David Garrick and Frances Burney. On moving to Bath in 1780, the eleven-year-old, apparently self-taught, artist became his family’s main source of income with a prolific output of “Striking Sketches of Likenesses” in pastel and pencil. The Holburne acquired a pair of such drawings in 2008, portraits of the Dottin brothers, two boys of a similar age to the artist who drew them, which reveal the boy’s extraordinary ability to capture and enhance a likeness (below).
At the age of seventeen, Lawrence moved to London, from where he wrote boldly to his mother: “excepting Sir Joshua [Reynolds], for the painting of a head I would risk my reputation with any painter in London”. He exhibited his first works at the Royal Academy in 1787 and was appointed Painter-in-Ordinary to King George III aged only 23. That same year, 1792, saw ten works by Lawrence at the RA’s summer exhibition, including a Portrait of an Etonian.
Hanging on the West Wall of the Great Room, this portrait of the nineteen-year-old Arthur Atherley (now in the Los Angeles County Museum) was praised in the London press: according to the Morning Herald, “This Picture might be placed by the side of the best of Sir Joshua’s”, effectively naming Lawrence as Reynolds’s successor.
Lawrence began the portrait of Atherley (c. 1771-1844) in 1791, to mark the young man’s departure from Eton College. The son of a banker and a wealthy heiress, Atherley later became a member of parliament for Southampton, succeeding Lawrence’s erstwhile young sitter Abel Rous Dottin. A dedicated reformer, his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine describes him as “consistent, incorruptible and successful at securing the thorough confidence of his constituents”.
The artist was just three years older than his sitter when he began the initial studies for Atherley’s portrait. In the rare oil sketch, the direct, painterly effect, the sense of movement and the young man’s confident, penetrating gaze, convey the qualities that already marked Lawrence out as an exceptional talent. Its unfinished nature is of particular value in a museum context, revealing the evolution of the painting and giving insight into the creative working process that is otherwise hidden in a finished work.
The study now at the Holburne had never been exhibited in public, and was last sold over 150 years ago. The Holburne has also acquired the receipt from that sale in Edinburgh (below), dated 3 July 1860. Curiously, the painting in question is described by the dealer as “the first sketch of the portrait of the Blue Boy by Gainsborough.” Although Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 response to Van Dyck has much in common with Arthur Atherley, it was still in the sitter’s possession in 1791, and unlikely to have been known to Lawrence.
The purchase for the Holburne Museum means that the Arthur Atherley study is now in the company of a number portraits which, like the Blue Boy, were painted by Thomas Gainsborough in Bath. Through loans, bequests and judicious purchases, the Holburne has been developing its reputation as a centre of excellence for eighteenth-century portraiture since the 1980s, with a collection that includes work by Zoffany, Ramsay, Wright of Derby and the great British miniaturists, as well as Bath artists like Gainsborough, Hoare and Barker. The presence of a painting by Lawrence now means that this important local artist is appropriately celebrated at the Holburne within the context of the eighteenth-century portraiture market, particularly that of Bath, which was then second only to London as an artistic and cultural centre. The oil sketch has a further link with the existing collection, since Arthur Atherley married the daughter of the 5th Marquess of Lothian. The Marquess’s sister, Emily Kerr, was painted as a young girl in Bath; her portrait by William Hoare.
The acquisition of the oil sketch of Arthur Atherley brings the Holburne one step closer to achieving a comprehensive display of eighteenth-century British portraiture while highlighting the local significance of Thomas Lawrence as a West Country hero. HLF funding has allowed us to embark on an innovative new Learning and Engagement programme, A New Portrait for Bath, inspired by Arthur Atherley, including a programme of artistic activities for school leavers and reminiscence work for the elderly based around the theme of leaving school. Plans are also underway for an exhibition of early work by Lawrence.
Arthur Atherley by Thomas Lawrence was acquired with support from the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, and donations from Friends, Patrons and visitors of the Holburne.