Artists Illustrating Boys' Fashions: Sir Thomas Lawrence (England, 1769-1830):

Figure 1.--Classic skeleton suits at the turn of the century were commonly worn with large, open-necked ruffled collars. This 1805 painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence shows the Fluyden children. The pose suggests the child at the left is a girl, but boys of that age would be dressed identically with their sisters.

Sir Thomas Lawrence is one of the greatest English portratists. This child prodigy and largely self-taught artist became the fashionable portrait painter of his day. On the death of Sir. Joshua Reynolds in 1792, he was made principal painter to King George III, who knighted him in 1815. Lawrence is especially noted for his children's portraits for which he was unsurpassed in his day. His portraits of artistocratic or wealthy children provide a rich source of information on fashionable children's wear of the day.


Thomas' father was the son of a presbyterian minister. He was well educated and worked a short period for a solicitor. He is said to have preferred "idleness and verse-making" to persuing a career. He tried a variety of pursuits including acting and working a while as a supervisor of excise. He ranaway with and married Lucy, daughter of William Read, vicar of Tenbury and rector of Rocheford, both in Worcestershire. His fortunes declined and he was forced to become a tavern keeper. His first effort at the White Lion in Broad Street, Bristol, was not successful. [Source: Dictionary of National Biography.]


Sir Thomas Lawrence, famed English portrait painter was born born in Bristol during 1769. While his father was not very sucessful financially, he was nothing if not prolific. Thomas was the youngest of 16 children, but most of his brothers and sisters died in infancy. His father when Thomas waabout three years old moved to Devizes, a small town which in the era before railroads served as resting-place for the coaches of the gentry from London on their way to the resort at Bath. His father operated the Black Bear inn. He would draw pencil profile portraits of the guests. His father used him as entertaiment for the guests, teaching him recitations from from Pope, Collins, and Milton. He would stand young Thomas on a table to do his recitations for his clients. Thomas also demonsrtrated his artistic talent at an early age and was a child prodigy. At the age of 5 years, introduced him to the inn's clients by announcing, "Gentlemen, here's my son. Will you have him recite from the poets or take your portraits?" A few of these early portraits survive. There is one of Mr. and Mrs. (afterwards Lord and Lady) Kenyon, drawn in 1775. Mrs. Kenyon was drawn in profile, because Thomas complained "her face was not straight". Thomas in addition to his artistic talents was quite a lively boy. He loved games (sports) and was particularly given to fighting (boxing). Despite Thomas' entertainments, his father did not succeed with the Black Bear either and the family moved to Bath when Thomas was about 10 years old. [Source: Dictionary of National Biography.]

Childhood Clothing

HBC at this time has no information on his childhood or the clothes that he wore as a boy. As his father was not very successfull financially, we doubt if he was very elegantly attired. We do note that his father did dress elegantly and so some fashionable clothes may haveben purchased for Thomas as well. The skeleton suit was becoming fashionable in the 1770s, so after breeching he may have worn one. English boys at the time appeared to have worn outfits beginning to look like skeleton-suits, but with knee breeches instead of long pants. It is of course the skeleton suits that dominate his wonderful portraits of English children.


Unlike his father, Thomas received virtually no formal eduaction. Not only did he receive no formal artistic instruction until he entered the Royal Academy, but he had little basic education as well. He did attend a school known as "The Fort" for a while. This appears to have been a private school kept by a Mr. Jones. He received a few lessons in French and Latin from a dissenting minister in Devizes named Mr. Jervis. Amazingly, he no academic art instruction as a child and was largely self taught. It is fascinating to think that one of the greatest portratists of all time essentially taught himself and perfected his skills in what amounts to an English saloon.


Lawrence began working in pastels and in 1780, he set up professionally after his family moved to Bath. There he was apparently the family's chief support, although his brothers and sisters also managed to obtain respectable positions. Thomas developed a envilable reputation in Bath and many notables had him fo their portraits. As a teenager he apparently developed an interest in the theater, but his father perhaps based on his own experiences managed to disuade him from this. Thomas, despite his lack of artistic training, was working in oils by the time he moved to London in 1787. Lawrence entered the Royal Academy as a student in 1787 and exhibited a number of paintings in his first year. Here he met an aging Sir Joshua Reynolds who encouraged him. He won recognition for his portrait of Miss Farren, a popular actress at the time. He became the fashionable portrait painter of his day, and on the death of Sir. Joshua Reynolds in 1792, he was made principal painter to King George III who greatly admired him and championed his career. He painted both the King and a highly regarded portrait of Queen Charlotte. When John Hoppner died in 1810 he was patronized by the Prince Regent (future George IV). He knighted him in 1815. George IV in 1818 sent him to to the political congresses of Aix-la-Chapelle and Vienna, which returned Europe to stability after the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Lawrence painted 24 large full-length portraits of the principal military leaders and heads of state of the Holy Alliance whivh had defeated Napoleon. These portraits are now displayed together in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle--a masterful historical document. Lawrence was made a Royal Academician in 1794 and served as president of the Academy from 1820-30.

Figure 2.--This painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence is a good example of English Regency fashion for boys. Note the bright red skeleton suit. I am unsure how common such brightly colored clothes were for boys. I'm not sure about the date of the painting, but note that the boys' ruffled collar is closed and worn with a small bow.


Lawrence's gift was for portriture and all his best works are portraits. He did attempt other grander, imaginary works but with little success. He probably his limited education and professional training was probably a factor.


Lawrence was incouraged by Sir Joshua Reynolds. He became a close friend of Henry Fuseli. An important studio assistant was John Simpson (1782-1847). Two of his most important students included Thomas Sully (English/American painter, 1783-1872) and Samuel Lane (1780-1859).


Lawrence was a gifted stylist. His technique was masterful and his drafting skills show in his portraits, despite his lack of academic training. He often used vivid colors. His portraits masterfully portray the elegance of the monied class of his period. He portrayed his subjects with a refinement that most sitters wanted. His portrait of Mrs. Simmons is one of his most highly regarded portraits. Other brilliant works included Princess Lieven and Cardinal Gonsalvi.


Lawrence is one of HBC's favorite artists, in part because of his masterful drawing skills and the details of the children's clothing in his portraits. Perhaps this is in part a result of his father's interest in dressing well. No artist has left us a better record of early 19th century children's clothing than Lawrence. While widely recognized as one of England's greatest portratists, Lawrence is not without his critics. Art critics charge that Larence's portraits offer little insight into character and were deficient in imagination. This criticism seems rather harsh, bit has an element of truth. He ceratinly depicted the graces of society, the "elegant airs of the men" and "the gracious smiles and sparkling eyes of the ladies" with uneraing accuracy. Campbell wrote appreciation that his own portrait was "lovely", and added: "This is the merit of Lawrence's painting, he makes one seem to have got into a drawing-room in the mansions of the blest, and to be looking at oneself in the mirrors." It is generally conceded that as a draughtsman, particularly of faces and hands, he is unrivaled. Critics complain, however, that his portraits have little atmosphere, and the color, though brilliant and adds to the depiction, is often "hard and glassy". The children are always well-dressed and depicted with empecanle manners, but their attitudes seem "studied and their expressions artificial". While less grandiose than his oil portraits, his most startling works are his often informal drawings in crayons and pencil. Begun as a child he continued these throughout his life. [Source: Dictionary of National Biography.]

Figure 3.--Lawrence painted these two brothers in colored velvet suits, but I'm unsure about the dates. Note the more formal-looking, high ruffled collars and small, rather informal neck ribbons.

Art Collection

Lawrence was also a great lover of art. He amassed an especially fine collection of old-master drawings. He helped obtain the Greek Elgin Marbles. Lawrence also played a major role in the founding of the British National Gallery.

English Portrature

Lawrence, Gainsborough, and Reynolds represent the apex of distinctive English portrait painters. They are three of the finest protrait painters in art history.

Children's Portraits

Lawrence is especially noted for his children's portraits for which he was unsurpassed in his day. He remains one of the most sucessful of all children's portraitists. They were the commissiins ofwealthy patrons. These portraits. always with the children well dressed, are a rich source of information on fashionable children's wear of the day. We have been able to identify most of the children. His portrait of The Calmady Children is generally regarded as his masterpiece of this genre. Unfortunately we have collected only a few of these magnificent portraits and our information in the images that we do have is incomplete.
Arthur Atherley (1791): This portrait is of Arthur Atherley as an Etonian. We know nothing about Arhur, but attending Eton at the time and being painted by Larence suggests he came from a wealthy family. An Etonian of course means a boy attending Eton College. This is a public (meaning private) school located near Windsor Castle, probably the most famous school in the world. King Henry Vi founded the school in 1440 to supply scholars to various educational institutions. Today it is an independent boarding school for boys between the ages 13-18. Some of the most famous English leaders attended England. They included military commanders, writers, explorers and politicians. Individuals included the Duke of Wellington, Shelley, Robert Boyle, George Orwell and Ian Fleming. The movie “Chariots of Fire” and the famous race around the quad was filmed at Eton. Atherley in the portrait here stands with Eton College in the distant background. Atherley who graduated from Eton in 1791 is presented as both well-mannered and confident. Laewnce's portrait seems a presentation of the educated ideal. Atherly who was about to finish at Eton is shown as both civilized and—armed with the requisite cognitive skills and knowledge—confident in his own ability to succeed in life. We do not know anything about Atherley's subsequent life.The portrait is interested because it shows an Eton boy before the better-known school uniform was adopted in the early 19th century.
Calmady children: This portrait is widely regaded as Lawrence's masterpiece in children's protrature. We do not yet have an image of this prtrait.
Fluyden children (1805): This wonderful 1805 portrait of the Fluyden children shows the classic skeleton suits worn at the turn of the century (figure 1). They were commonly worn with large, open-necked ruffled collars. The pose suggests the child at the left is a girl, but boys of that age would be dressed identically with their sisters.
Hardinge/James portrait (1829): Larence painted Sir Walter James Bt and Charles Stewart Hardinge in 1829. Charles Stewart's father fought with Wellington in the Waterloo campaign and became Viceroy of India. The older boy's dark suit is hard to make out, but it includes a high ruffled collar. The younger boy appars to be wearing a red tunic with long trousers. These tunics had becone quite fashionable. He also has densly curly hair that has been allowed to grow, but not over his ears. This was one of Lawrence's last portraits as he died the following year.
Lord Melbourne's children:
Lambton (17??): "Master Lambton" was Charles William Lambton, the son of John George Lambton 1st Earl of Durham. The painting was one of Larence's earliest serious portraints of children, and one of the most famous. He wears a burgandy skeleton suit with a ruffled open collar. Red and burgandy velvet seems to have been popular for boys. Unusually this boy does not appear to be wearing stockings with his sailor suit.
Marquis of Londonderry's children:
Napoleon's son (1818): A fascinating portrait was the bust of the Emperor Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt, which was done in Vienna after the Emperor's fall. The boy was brought back to Vienna after the Emperor's fall nd raised in the Austrian court.
Unidentified brothers (18??): Lawrence painted these two brothers in velvet suits, but I'm unsure about the dates. Note the more formal-looking, high ruffled collars and small, rather informal neck ribbons and the bright red suit the older boy wears (figure 2).
Unidentified youths (17??): Here we see three unidentified youths, a brother and two sisters. We would guess it was done in the late 18th century. One agent suggests this is a Lawrence work. We just do not know.

Figure 4.--"Master Lambton" is on of Lawrence's most famous portraits of children. The skeleton suit here has a matching jacket.


Painting in the last generation before the emrgence of photography, Larence's portraits are a valuable window into the late 18th and early 19th century. This was a critical point in the development of boys' clothing as it was in this period that specialized boys' clothing first emerged. The most important early style was the skeleton suit. No other artist provides more beautiful works of boys wearing skeleton suits. In fact the emergence and stylistic developmnt of the skeleton suit can be traced in Lawrence's portraits as he painted into the 1820s. We also note the appearance of tunics in at least one of his later portraits.


Lawrence's works are so highly regarded that they are a popular subject of copiers. They copies are for the most part pale imitations of the Lawrence orginals.


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Created: February 29, 1999
Spell checked: July 30, 1999
Last updated: 1:46 AM 7/31/2010