This is a striking early work by the teenage prodigy Lawrence who worked in his younger days almost exclusively in pastel. It represents an excellent transitionary piece, combining the more standard use of pastel along with the delicate chalk work and pencil which was to be the hallmark of his more mature style. Drawn about 1784, it predates, but is very similar, in approach to the portrait of Mr. Grist (Michael Levy ‘Sir Thomas Lawrence’ p.75.). However it must be noted that to date an early work on paper by Lawrence has never demonstrated such exceptional ability in this manner, particularly in the drawing of the head, which is comparable to some of his later works such as the portrait of Mary Hamilton in the British Museum. Depicted in Lawrence’s hand as a handsome young gentleman, this might not be an exaggeration as it was noted that William Jackson, “was neat and punctilious in his exterior…whilst his countenance was remarkably prepossessing and expressive of a mild benignity” (R. Freeman ‘Kentish Poets’ 1822, Vol. II, p.389)
The sitter William Jackson was the son of John Jackson, an Alderman of Canterbury and became a poet and regular contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine. He was a cousin as well as a Godfather to Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), the botanist and director of Kew Gardens. He was a gentleman of leisure who appears to have been well liked amongst Canterbury society and had he lived longer may have become better known as a poet. Tragically he died as a result of a riding accident in April 1789 at just thirty-two years of age. He is buried at St Mildred’s Church in Canterbury where there is a monument in his memory stating that he was “a general friend of the society in which he lived”.
Recently discovered, having been in a family collection where the attribution was long held to be erroneous, previous scholars on Lawrence have been unaware of the portrait’s existence. The National Portrait Gallery in London was surprised by the highly unusual experimental nature of the drawing and considers it a worthy addition to his known early works.
Sir Thomas Lawrence was born in Bristol and began his career early as a self-taught child prodigy who supported his family by doing pastel portraits of the nobility and of important military figures around Bath. In 1787 he went to London to study at the Royal Academy and began to paint in oils. In 1790 at just twenty his portrait of the noted beauty Elizabeth Farren caused a sensation and set him on a successful path to fame and fortune, though financial concerns were to dog him for most of his life. He became an associate of the Academy in 1791, and the following year was appointed Painter-in-Ordinary to King George III. He became a member of the Academy in 1794, received a knighthood in 1815, and was President of the Academy from 1820 until his death in London in 1830.
After the defeat of Napoleon, Lawrence travelled across Europe to paint European monarchs, nobility, and the military heroes who had contributed to the allied victory. His portraits combined glamour, bravura brushwork, rich colours and Romantic landscape settings, and came to define his age, making him the most famous portrait painter in Europe during his own lifetime.
We are grateful to Lucy Pelz, curator at the National Portrait Gallery and the 2010-11 Exhibition ‘Thomas Lawrence – Regency Power and Brilliance’ for her views concerning this work.
Further images are available on request