This is a portrait of an officer from the Irish Volunteers. The Irish Volunteers was a part-time military force raised by local initiative in Ireland in 1778. Their original purpose was to guard against invasion and to preserve law and order at a time when British soldiers were withdrawn from Ireland to fight abroad during the American Revolutionary War.
This rare early portrait, drawn in Bath, shows the level of technical skill that Lawrence had reached at 14 years old. His use of colour and tone to depict flesh and all the subtle variations in the texture and pigmentation of his sitter’s face, powdered hair and clothes show how Lawrence conceived pastel as a form of painting and partly explains how he could have made the smooth transition to oil painting so soon afterwards.
When he arrived in Bath from Devizes in 1780, eleven-year-old Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) was promoted as a natural-born genius like his Renaissance predecessor Raphael. The local press announced the arrival of the boy wonder and his ‘Striking Sketches’, inviting the ‘Nobility and Gentry’ to sit for their portraits.
Thomas Lawrence was a prodigious portraitist from the age of just eight, when he began to draw his first portraits in pencil. His father, a mildly reprobate innkeeper also called Thomas, exploited his son’s self-taught talent for capturing likenesses, and much of Lawrence’s childhood was spent producing small head and shoulder portraits. Little is known about this aspect of the Young Lawrence’s work, but he was clearly talented enough to justify a substantial clientele. Guests at his father’s inn near Bath could have their portrait done by a celebrated local prodigy, hailed as a Mozart of art, and early sitters included the young William Pitt [Private Collection, formerly with Philip Mould Ltd]. Following his father’s bankruptcy in 1780, the family moved to Bath, and relied almost entirely on the portrait commissions of Thomas junior.
It was amongst the large network of Bath’s wealthy connoisseurs that Lawrence first came into contact with the Old Masters, primarily through drawings and prints. We know, for example, that he made copies in pastel of Old Masters, such as Raphael’s Transfiguration (Sothebys, London, 12th March 1987) and Carracci’s Mars (Sothebys, London, 25th February 1998). Most of Lawrence’s early pastel portraits pre-Bath are simple profile likenesses – but by the mid 1780s he was able to attempt more challenging compositions.