Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was born on 13 April 1769, the son of Thomas Lawrence (1725-1797), a supervisor of excise, and Lucy (1731?-1797), daughter of Revd William Read. In 1773 Lawrence's father moved his family from Bristol to Devizes where he became landlord of the Black Bear, a coaching inn on the London-Bath road. At a young age Lawrence revealed his talent for drawing being especially capable of sketching likenesses. Profile portraits of Lord and Lady Kenyon, who stayed at the Black Bear in 1779, document the young Lawrence's ability.
The young Lawrence was also noticed for his handsome appearance and his gift for reciting verse, from Shakespeare and Milton. Fanny Burney and David Garrick were two visitors to the inn who recognised his talent. Lawrence received little formal education however which was something he regretted in adult life.
In 1779 Lawrence's father was declared bankrupt and Lawrence became the chief financial earner of the family. The Lawrence family eventually settled in Bath, by 1783 Lawrence was practising mainly as a painter of small portraits in pastels, receiving for half-lengths 3 guineas. Pastel was a medium which Lawrence would cease using around 1790 and the majority of his surviving pastel portraits are no more than competent. In Bath Lawrence met collectors and connoisseurs who gave him access to works of art they owned – inspiring him with a passion to collect. Bath also ignited Lawrence's enthusiasm for the theatre.
Lawrence's artistic education was also limited. Despite passing as self-taught whilst at Bath he likely had some lessons in oil painting from the fashionable portrait painter William Hoare, whose son Prince Hoare was a supportive friend. In 1784 Lawrence won the award of a silver palette and 5 guineas from the Royal Society of Arts in London for a copy in crayons of Raphael's 'Transfiguration'. In 1787 Lawrence left Bath for London and was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools.
Lawrence's only briefly attended the Academy Schools; his talent was recognised at once as outstripping his fellow students. In 1787 he sent several works in pastel to the Royal Academy exhibition and in 1789 exhibited a full length portrait in oils 'Lady Cremorne'. 1790 saw Lawrence receive full public recognition; he exhibited 12 portraits at the Royal Academy and received positive reviews. Lawrence was acknowledged as the successor to Sir Joshua Reynolds and in 1789 he had been asked to paint Queen Charlotte and Princess Amelia. George III wanted the Royal Academy to elect Lawrence as an associate in 1790 but they refused because of the regulation against election of associates aged under 24. However he was elected the following year and in 1794 he was elected a full academician. George III also appointed him painter-in-ordinary following Reynolds' death in 1792.
The 1790s were testing for Lawrence his attempts to combine portrait painting with history paintings were unsuccessful. Both his parents died in 1797 and he also conducted a highly charged and frustrated love affair with both Sally and Maria Siddons, who died in 1803 and 1798 respectively.
Lawrence was not good at managing his affairs; he was generous in giving help to his family and other artists and spent large amounts on artistic materials and drawings for his collection. By 1807 he owed more than £20,000. Lawrence's portraits continued to be applauded and regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy however many commissions remained unfinished which caused patrons to complain bitterly. Lawrence's main rival during the early 1800s was John Hoppner who had been patronised by the Prince of Wales. Hoppner's death in 1810 probably influenced Lawrence to raise his prices from 200 guineas to 400 for a full length portrait. It was also this period which saw Lawrence develop a friendship with Mrs Isabella Wolff, who was probably the most important person in his emotional life until her death in 1829.
Lawrence's friendship with Major-General the Hon. Charles Stewart led to the Prince Regent becoming interested in Lawrence. Stewart persuaded the Prince to sit for a full length portrait in 1814 and the same year the Prince commissioned from Lawrence full-length portraits of King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, Tsar Alexander I, and the Duke of Wellington amongst others.
Lawrence's first trip abroad was to Paris in September 1815; there he saw the original of Raphael's 'Transfiguration' which he had copied as a boy. In 1816 he gave evidence to the House of Commons committee on whether the nation should acquire the Elgin marbles which he strongly supported. The later part of this decade saw Lawrence spend time abroad in Aix-la-Chapelle, where he painted allied sovereigns who had gathered for peace negotiations; Vienna where he undertook several portraits including the duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon's son; and Rome where he painted the pope.
Lawrence returned to Britain in 1820, in his absence Benjamin West had died and Lawrence was elected president of the Royal Academy. The Prince Regent was now George IV and Lawrence painted his official coronation portrait. Lawrence continued to paint until the end of his life, his last distinguished patron being Robert Peel for whom he painted several family portraits. Lawrence died suddenly on 7 January 1830 at home, his funeral was held at St Paul's Cathedral.
This biographical description is largely based on Michael Levey, 'Lawrence, Sir Thomas (1769–1830)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/16189, accessed 23 May 2017]