National Gallery to acquire Sir Thomas Lawrence's 'The Red Boy' for the Nation

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National Gallery to acquire Sir Thomas Lawrence's 'The Red Boy' for the Nation
Sir Thomas Lawrence, Charles William Lambton, 1825. Unframed H 137.2 x W 111.8 cm. Private collection. Image © National Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The National Gallery has entered into a commitment to purchase Portrait of Charles William Lambton (1818-31) by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830).

The 1825 work – world renowned as ‘The Red Boy’ – was made when Lawrence, one of the first trustees of the National Gallery, was at the height of his powers as painter and portraitist, a year after the Gallery opened to the public in 1824. Such is its status, in 1967 ‘The Red Boy’ was the first painting ever to be included on a British postage stamp.

This is a unique opportunity for the Gallery to acquire an exceptionally important painting by one of the finest European portraitists of the early 19th century, which is of outstanding significance for British national heritage.

The painting is being offered from a private collection by private treaty sale via Christie’s, at a special price of £9.3 million.

The funding is made up of a generous commitment from the American Friends of the National Gallery, plus funding from other sources including donations from individuals and charitable trusts, restricted grants, and legacies already made to the National Gallery. This includes a significant bequest from the estate of Miss Gillian Cleaver, and donations from The Al Thani Collection Foundation, The Manny and Brigitta Davidson Charitable Foundation and other donors

Art Fund has generously supported the acquisition with a grant of £300,000.

The National Gallery shall pay in instalments and will assume legal title (fully own the painting) when the full purchase price has been paid before the end of December 2021.

The portrait of Charles Lambton, commissioned by his father John George Lambton (1792-1840), created 1st Earl of Durham in 1833, caused much comment on its first exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1825 - The Times remarking on the ‘sparkling intelligence of youth’. The portrait of the six- or seven-year-old boy shows Lawrence’s mature powers to the full, in the open but pensive glance, the elegant but informal pose with the bent arm reflecting the Renaissance artist’s traditional depiction of melancholy, the bravura painting of the red velvet suit, and the extraordinary and unusual background.

Lawrence has placed his sitter outdoors at night, seated on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, with moonlight reflected in the water – it has been suggested that he might have been inspired by Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, brought to London in 1785 and perhaps exhibited there in 1818 (it did not enter the National Gallery collection until 1880). The effect is undoubtedly romantic, and Lawrence may have intended his setting to characterise the young boy as being on the cusp of a journey through life - although he was not to know when painting this, that his young sitter was to tragically die at the age of only 13 from tuberculosis.

The Gallery currently has five portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence* - but all are from the very early part of his career. ‘The Red Boy’, an ambitious and poetic work on an unexpectedly large scale for a portrait of a young child, is very different from the society portraiture which was Lawrence’s ‘bread and butter’ and fully demonstrates his powers in maturity. In ‘The Red Boy’ Lawrence shows how he continued to develop the deeply European sensibility which enables him to be compared to artists such as David, Delacroix, and Goya.

‘The Red Boy’ will undergo conservation treatment before going on display at the National Gallery early next year.

The National Gallery is grateful to Christie's for their support in ensuring this work joins the nation’s collection.

Christine Riding, Jacob Rothschild Head of the Curatorial Department, says “The acquisition of Lawrence’s sensitive portrait of youth, Master Lambton: 'The Red Boy’, is a dream come true for everyone who loves British art. Its presence at the National Gallery will allow us to show the intimate relationship between Lawrence, Gainsborough, Constable and many other European artists and paintings in the nation’s collection at Trafalgar Square.”

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says “Lawrence’s Portrait of Master Lambton, known as ‘The Red Boy’, is a tour de force of technical brilliance and at the same time a moving representation of a young boy becoming self-aware. This dazzling portrait will join other superb child paintings at the Gallery, including works by Murillo, Hogarth, Liotard, Gainsborough and Vigée Le Brun. I am confident that when it is acquired it will quickly become a much-admired painting for all our visitors.”

Jenny Waldman, Director of Art Fund, said “The Red Boy is an outstanding and tender portrait by one of Britain’s most distinguished painters at the height of his powers. Art Fund are delighted to support the acquisition of this painting, which is a national treasure. We are thrilled that The Red Boy will join the National Gallery collection for the enjoyment of future generations.”

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