This striking likeness of King George IV when Prince Regent, wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter, is one of the most flamboyant Regency images to have re-emerged in recent decades.

Regarded by some as ‘the grandest and most glamorous portrait ever painted of a British monarch’,[1] the full-length prime version was commissioned by Lord Charles Stewart in 1814. Such was its reception that it became the established prototype for all official portraits of George thereafter. The present work appears in areas to be exploratory, and may well have had some preparatory function. While essential artistic information, such as the badges of the Greater George, the symbol of the Golden Fleece and the Guelphic and Bath orders, are deftly recorded, as well as how they are placed and relate to each other in context, multiple motifs such as the continuous chain links of lions passant and crowns are left as rudimentary blocked in outlines, punctuated by fleeting...

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This striking likeness of King George IV when Prince Regent, wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter, is one of the most flamboyant Regency images to have re-emerged in recent decades.

Regarded by some as ‘the grandest and most glamorous portrait ever painted of a British monarch’,[1] the full-length prime version was commissioned by Lord Charles Stewart in 1814. Such was its reception that it became the established prototype for all official portraits of George thereafter. The present work appears in areas to be exploratory, and may well have had some preparatory function. While essential artistic information, such as the badges of the Greater George, the symbol of the Golden Fleece and the Guelphic and Bath orders, are deftly recorded, as well as how they are placed and relate to each other in context, multiple motifs such as the continuous chain links of lions passant and crowns are left as rudimentary blocked in outlines, punctuated by fleeting highlights to suggest their form and positioning, once Lawrence had completed one or two examples of each in detail. The portrait has also been trimmed on all sides, suggesting that it might once have had an unfinished perimeter, a common phenomenon among the multiplicity of unfinished works included in Lawrence’s posthumous studio sale. Further indications of this being an exploratory work are evident in the form of pentiments, most particularly around the hair which originally consisted of a four centimetre hackle of wayward locks which Lawrence may have thought appropriate to modify for the purposes of royal decorum.

Christopher Lloyd, former Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures, who has inspected the present painting, has suggested that it may be a ruminative autograph work that was never fully resolved, and which remained in Lawrence’s studio. A picture that might have fitted this description – ‘three quarter portrait, the original head from which all the state pictures were painted’ – was in Lawrence’s studio sale of 1831, although it has not so far been possible to link its twentieth-century provenance with its last documented appearance at a British Institution exhibition in 1856, the technical and stylistic reasons for considering it to be the present work are plausible. In order for Lawrence to produce both autograph and studio versions of the state portrait, it would have been necessary to have had a clear record of both the King’s likeness and the intricate orientation and details of the orders, and it could easily have taken the form of a combination of resolution and shorthand that is stylistically evident in this painting.

Although the quality of this portrait is indeed evident, its large scale combined with the fact it was painted during the peak of Lawrence’s career means that assistance from the studio in basic areas such as the column in the background and areas of the red hanging drape should not be discounted. This is entirely to be expect and indeed it is inconceivable that any major works painted by Lawrence at this date did not involve a certain amount of collaboration with his talented assistants.

Curiously, with the exception of a version in the Vatican Museums and Galleries, Lawrence seems to have omitted from the Garter portraits prior to c.1820 the Order of the Golden Fleece and collar which the Prince was awarded separately in 1814 by both Austria and Spain. It is unclear why he did this, although it is possible that the Royal household considered it inappropriate for home display to include a Catholic order – and indeed that may have been a contributory reason why this particular likeness might have remained a studio reference image prior to a Golden Fleece version being required in the next decade.

It is known that this portrait-type, most familiar to us in full-length form, was considered one of the preferred official likenesses of the King, and thus studio and other replicas were dispersed amongst his most illustrious supporters. The recipients of these portraits included institutions such as guild halls and universities, ambassadors and favoured aristocrats. For the most part, the dispersal of these likenesses is well documented and although most of these works have been identified and accounted for, there are a few which are now considered lost.

We know, for example, that Lawrence painted a portrait for Count Münster of Hanover and another that was formerly in the Russian Imperial Collection in St. Petersburg.[2]

This portrait was owned by Isabel van Wie Willys, ex-wife of John North Willys, who made his fortune as the second largest car manufacturer in America in the early twentieth century. Mr and Mrs Willys built up a formidable collection of Old Masters, acquiring many of their important paintings through dealers including Duveen Brothers and Reinhardt Galleries.[3] The decreasing fortunes of many great European families at this date meant that fine paintings were relatively easy to come by, and the increasing demand from wealthy Americans for iconic British art meant that many important royal portraits such as this were sold abroad.

This portrait was sold at auction following the death of Isabel van Wie Willys and subsequently entered the collection of the celebrated Cuban railroad magnate Oscar Cintas, whose collection of Old Master paintings was supposedly regarded as the best in Latin America. Following his death the collection was dispersed at auction in London, and the present work was bought by art dealers Leggatt Brothers, who then presumably sold it to Nancy Tritton (née Oakes), recorded as the owner in 1973.[4] The work was then placed in storage and sold privately in 2014.

[1] M. Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence (London, 2005), p.206

[2] See O. Millar, Later Georgian Pictures in the Royal Collection (London, 1969), vol. I, p.78

[3] See for example the so-called Madonna Willys by Giovanni Bellini (1425/3-1516) c.1480 which was bought by John North Willys in 1915 from Duveen Brothers and subsequently sold at auction by Isabel van Wie Willys in the same sale as this work.

[4] C. Wood (Christie’s), letter to Kenneth Garlick 11 July 1973, Kenneth Garlick Research Papers c.1950-2002, National Portrait Gallery Collected Archives, National Portrait Gallery, London.

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500 Years of British Art