Sir Thomas Lawrence, PRA, letters and papers

RA Collection: Archive

Archive context

Showing item 36 of 73 in this group

Reference code



Sir Thomas Lawrence, PRA, letters and papers





Extent & medium

5 volumes of correspondence, 2 index volumes, 1 small scrapbook and 20 loose letters

Previous reference codes

407 - LAW/1-5, 421 - LAW/7-8, and 357 - LAW/9

Historical Background

Sir Thomas Lawrence, portrait painter, was the third President of the Royal Academy of Arts, holding the position for the years 1820-1830. He was regarded during his lifetime as the first painter of Europe. Born in 1769 his talents found early recognition and he became something of a child prodigy among the fashionable crowd of the 1770s.

His father, a complex character and charged by some with exploiting his son's fame and earning potential, owned for a time the Black Bear Inn at Devises. Travelers on the way to Bath Spa would commonly overnight at this inn. Young Lawrence would frequently be paraded to guests, reading passages from Milton and Shakespeare from memory and taking rapid profiles in pastel, Mrs. Siddons being one early sitter.

The family moved to Bath in 1782 and Lawrence's reputation as a gifted pastel portraitist became established. For the next few years Lawrence provided the family's primary income. Lawrence moved to London in 1787 and entered the Royal Academy schools as a student, simultaneously seeking to develop a new market for his work.

Lawrence's early manhood is shrouded in mystery, but there are hints of social waywardness. What is certain is that he incurred dreadful debts while young. The commonly cited reason for this was his father's profligacy, although family members later made strong denials. Lawrence did become a passionate collector of old master drawings but it is unclear how this affected his finances at the close of the 18th century. By 1800 Lawrence was teetering on the point of bankruptcy. His close friend Joseph Farington stepped in and took control of Lawrence's finances, under the direction of Lawrence's bankers.

Lawrence's reputation as a portrait painter in oils began to soar, despite the background anxieties of his financial position. Reynolds's death gave rise to debate on who would inherit the mantle of Britain's "great" portrait painter and the period between 1792 and 1810 saw Lawrence in fierce competition with other portrait painters, primarily Sir William Beechey and John Hoppner, an artist who, to a large degree painted in the manner of Reynolds.

The Prince Regent began to take serious notice of the painter after Hoppner's death in 1810. Lawrence effectively now stood without a rival (Beechey was now thought old fashioned) and the aristocracy lined up to sit to him. In professional terms Lawrence was from this point to be fully occupied, commanding prices far in excess of any other portait painter.

Royal patronage reached a new peak in 1814 when Lawrence was commanded to attend the conference of Aix la Chapelle and paint the victors of Waterloo. He was knighted in recognition of the importance of this task The visit was extended when the Prince Regent decided he wanted a portrait of the Pope, allowing Lawrence an opportunity to experience Italy.

Content Description


These papers represent Thomas Lawrence's archive at the time of his death. By way of addition the archive holds letters once in the possession of Elizabeth Croft.

In 1830 the bulk of the manuscripts fell into the charge of Archibald Keightley, Lawrence's executor. This material was bound into six volumes (LAW/1-5 & LAW/6). Although the archive comprises over 2000 items it provides a far from complete impression of the various stages of Lawrence's life. The weaknesses of the material were apparent as early as 1830, with the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell complaining that there was no material for biography within the papers. Although this is undoubtedly an overstatement it is a little disappointing that the researcher is given very little idea of Lawrence's personal life and domestic arrangements.

A note on Dates

A nineteenth century hand has supplied dates by annotation on most un-dated letters. It appears that more than one hand is at work. Farington added dates to letters he received from Lawrence, but close study has revealed that Keightley (or some other interested party) is responsible for many other dates. The letters involved have incredibly faint pencil dates written in them. Dates which are suspiciously precise providing day and month. This is not something you expect to find when guesswork is being employed. In places the pencil is obscured by old conservation treatment, establishing that they were added at an early point, prior to the binding of the manuscripts. Quite why the person responsible felt so confident about adding specific dates (some even contrary to one supplied by the manuscript's author) is unknown. At least one effort has been made to erase them, perhaps indicating dissatisfaction.

These dubious pencil dates have been used as evidence when other methods fail. In each case the catalogue will contain a note warning the user of the situation.

Content summary

There is a disproportionate quantity of letters from Lawrence to Joseph Farington between 1803 and 1814, almost the exclusion of all else. If it were not for this very full collection of letters to Farington the archive would say very little about the whole period. Even those letters not by Lawrence to Farington often have a strong relationship to the discussion between the two artists.

Lawrence moved to 65 Russell Square in 1814. This was to be his main residence for the rest of his life. I suspect it is more than coincidence that the archive becomes more cohesive from this date. As has already been said, prior to 1814, most of the letters are actually written to Farington. The upheavals associated with moving house are inimical to the survival of archives, whereas a sedentary existence allows for the benign neglect that often ensures preservation.

Lawrence had a long and intimate friendship with Mrs. Wolff, the wife of Jens Wolff, Danish Consul in London. It is likely that this friendship lies behind one of the more enigmatic elements in the archive. Fragmentary letters by Lawrence begin to appear in 1818, during his trip to Rome. Elements of these give the impression of a diary, if letters they bear no address or salutation etc. G. Layard, in his Sir Thomas Lawrence's letter bag assures us that these are letters to Mrs. Wolff. A later fragment gives weight to this theory as it carries a enough of a fragmentary address to corroborate this. Mrs. Wolff died shortly before Lawrence, a blow from which, some maintained, he never recovered. It appears that his letter to her were returned and it is possible that he then embarked on an editing process resulting in these fragments.


Most of the archive was in Lawrence's possession in 1830. The early portion of the archive is extraordinarily patchy. Little, in fact, has survived prior to 1814. The great exception to this is Lawrence's correspondence with Joseph Farington, which is voluminous if not entirely complete. It is probable that the letters were returned to Lawrence on Farington's death in 1821.

Later portions of the archive display more cohesive qualities, which could be explained by Lawrence's latterly sedentary habitation in Russell Square. Certainly the archive takes on the feel of a naturally accumulated correspondence after 1814.

Thomas Campbell complained of the lack of materials for biography (LAW/5/522-523) when attempting start a biography of Lawrence. It is possible that Keightley refused access at an early stage, not knowing what lay among the papers, but at least some of the letters were made available once D.E. Williams took over as biographer.

Keightley brought together the material during his work as Thomas Lawrence's executor. Correspondence generated by the accession of the letters to the Royal Academy assert that it was Keightley who bound the archive into five volumes. With a few exceptions the archive has since remained static. Three notable removals are noted, letters from George Washington, presented to Keightley, and independent of any action by Thomas Lawrence.

The collection was given to Miss Mary Keightley on the death of her father Archibald, she was his one surviving daughter.

Acquisition Details

In 1939, after discussion with her nephew, Sir Sydney Nicholson, Miss Keightley decided to donate the papers to the Royal Academy of Arts.


It is clear that Archibald Keightley is responsible for the current arrangement, any idiosyncracies are due to his methods.

The letters are arranged broadly into a chronological sequence. There are many exceptions to this. In any case, Keightley's arrangement has been retained. Keightley placed the archive into five large volumes.


Sir Thomas Lawrence's Letter-Bag, ed. George Somes Layard, 1906, London.

Sir Thomas lawrence, Kenneth Garlick, 1989, Oxford.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Michael Levey, 2005, New Haven.

Sir Thomas Lawerence: Regency Power And Brilliance, ed. Albinson, Peltz Funnell, 2010, London.