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William Linley

With his head turned in profile, this portrait of William Linley (1771–1835) emerges almost as a silhouette against the subdued backdrop. Illuminated from above, we are drawn to the healthy glow of William’s flushed cheeks, a tiny highlight of paint on his lower lip sparkles with freshness, and his tumbling tresses catch the light as they fall over his shoulders. Dressed in a dark coat, the flash of his necktie creates a starburst of white, forming a visual anchor right at the very centre of the canvas. Despite the sense of teenage reticence in his averted gaze, William appears relaxed and the simple portrait exudes a sense of youthful vitality.  The youngest son of the musical Linley family, William was known for the sweetness of his voice, although his father, Thomas Linley (1733–95), did not consider him talented enough to perform on stage. He may be shown here either in the uniform of St Paul’s School, London, at the age of sixteen or so, or a little older at the age of twenty, before he departed for employment in India. In 1795 ill health forced him to return to England where he became part of the London theatrical scene. His long hair was clearly a distinguishing characteristic and, when it was finally cut in October 1798, the event was recorded by his sister, Jane Linley (1768–1806), who wrote that William had undergone ‘a wonderful metamorphose’ his hair ‘a Crop (…) at last’.

This sensitive portrait was painted by the English artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), aged between eighteen and twenty, just as he was on the brink of becoming one of the most successful artists of the late eighteenth century and future president of the Royal Academy, London. There are only two years separating artist and sitter. The two boys were childhood friends, growing up next door to each other in Bath. Thomas Lawrence was considered a child prodigy. From the age of ten he was selling pastel drawings of the clients who passed through his father’s inn in Wiltshire. Lawrence’s treatment of William’s hair and cravat, although executed in oil paint, have the sense of the swift strokes of pastel. It is possible that the portrait came about when Lawrence was asked to provide an example of his work to be presented to the king, George III (1738–1820). The royal presentation appears to have been a success and before he turned twenty-one, Lawrence had produced a full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). His fluid brushwork seen in this portrait of his childhood friend became his signature style, developing into swaggering full-length portraits of Regency heads of state and society dandies that defined his career.

Currently on display

Sir Thomas Lawrence
Gallery 10
76.2 x 63.5 cm
Oil on canvas
William Linley Bequest, 1835
Accession number