Princess Charlotte and Lawrence – Portrait of the Week

7 January 2014

NPG D22138; Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales by Richard Golding, after  Sir Thomas Lawrence

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, after Thomas Lawrence, 1817. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Yes, it’s time to resurrect that old favourite – portrait of the week, I decided to incorporate not one but two events that happened on this day, the birth of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales in 1796 and the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence (another famous Bristolian who was born just down the road from where I am sitting right at this very moment) in 1830, in one cunning package. I know. I’m just too good to you.

This is a sad one though as the portrait we’re looking at today was painted by Thomas Lawrence and depicts Princess Charlotte in 1817 when she was heavily pregnant. As we all know this pregnancy was to end in tragedy with the stillbirth of Charlotte’s baby son, her own death a day later and then shortly after this the suicide of Sir Richard Croft, the accoucher (male midwife) who had attended her in labour.

All of this horror lay in an unimaginable and not to be thought of future though at the time that Charlotte, just twenty one years old and clearly glowing with health (despite the best efforts of the royal doctors who bled the young princess and forced her to diet during her pregnancy in an attempt to ensure that the baby did not grow too big – utterly ridiculous), pride and love, sat for her portrait with Lawrence, who had painted her several times from infancy onwards – the confident, fluid brush strokes he employed being admirably suited to capturing the charming, restless and intelligent Princess’ cheerful energy, bouncing blonde curls and pink cheeks. In fact, he was even implicated during the big scandal that swirled around Charlotte’s mother, Princess Caroline and was forced to swear an affidavit that nothing untoward had occurred between himself and the young princess during their sittings together.

It’s entirely understandable therefore that when she sought to commemorate the pregnancy that was to be the great hope of her family (Charlotte being the only legitimate child of her father, the Prince of Wales) that she turned to Lawrence to do so – even arranging that he should come to her house, Claremont for the sittings instead of his super fashionable studio at Russell Square, which afforded him the opportunity to observe (and write letters about) the simple, unaffected and rather pleasingly un-royal lifestyle that she and her husband enjoyed away from London.

NPG D33521; Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales after Sir Thomas Lawrence

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, after Thomas Lawrence, 1817. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Despite the portrait’s unhappy provenance, I still think that it is a lovely piece of work, especially as it is so unusual to find depictions of pregnancy in paintings of this period and the contrast too between the rather more exuberant portraits of the younger Charlotte, torn between two warring parents and struggling to find her own footing in the world, and the new gravity and soft maturity that Lawrence captured about her expression now that she was happily married and expecting her first child is a poignant one also. It’s bitter sweet too as the painting was intended as a birthday present for Charlotte’s husband, Prince Leopold, with whom she was absolutely besotted and we can only imagine his feelings when just a month after her death on Leopold’s birthday on the 16th of December, Lawrence took the completed portrait to Claremont so that he could see it for the first time, just as Charlotte had intended. Lawrence would report afterwards that the Princess’ household was moved to tears by the sight of the painting and that Prince Leopold himself was absolutely distraught but still took the time to inspect it minutely (he kept the portrait and it is still in the Belgian royal collection) and talk at length with the artist about his wife’s final hours.

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