A painting by Thomas Lawrence acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London

1. Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)
Portrait of John Philip Kemble in Cato, 1812
Oil on canvas - 254 x 177.8 cm
London, National Portrait Gallery
Photo : National Portrait Gallery

31/7/09 – Acquisition – London, National Portrait Gallery – The London museum has just acquired, for £178, 500, with the help of the Art Fund, a portrait of the actor and theatre director John Philip Kemble in the title role of the play Cato, a tragedy by Joseph Addison. Written in 1713, it had a long and popular run in England with Kemble acting in the main role several times.
The painting dates from 1812. It makes an interesting comparison with the engraving by Georges Cruikshanhk (ill. 2), illustrating an edition of the tragedy dating from 1823 and representing – in a rather sketchy manner – the same scene from the play immediately preceding the suicide of Cato of Utica. Pausing in his reading of Plato, Julius Caesar’s rival is about to take the dagger which will end his life, seen on the table at the left.

2. After George Cruikshank
John Philip Kemble in Cato, 1823
Photo : Wikimedia Commons
Licence Creative Commons

Thomas Lawrence’s canvas falls somewhere between a portrait and a historical painting, what he himself termed “half-history painting” [1]. When it was presented to the public at the Royal Academy in 1812, critics pointed out the resemblance with the model. The artist was so pleased with his work that when the owner, the First Earl of Blessington, lent it to him to make a smaller version, he refused to return it and hung it conspicuously in his new home at Russel Square. The Earl’s heirs finally recovered it only after Thomas Lawrence passed away in 1830 !

This masterpiece by Lawrence will now join the already rich collection of thirty or so paintings by the artist held at the National Portrait Gallery.

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 31 juillet 2009


[1] Most of the information found here on the painting was taken directly from the press release put out by the National Portrait Gallery.

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