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  • image P11
SM P11. ©Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Photo: Art UK

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769 - 1830)

Portrait of Sir John Soane, aged 76


Oil on canvas

Height: 139cm
Width: 110.5cm

Museum number: P11

Curatorial note

This portrait of Soane by the distinguished portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), President of the Royal Academy, was completed in February 1829 and exhibited at the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy the same year. The richly-ornamented gilt frame was made by George Morant and Sons of New Bond Street.

The seventy-six year old Soane is portrayed wearing a brown curly wig and clothes that were, by this date, somewhat old-fashioned. As George Wightwick commented, in a lengthy and illuminating description of Soane’s appearance: ‘The idea of John Soane in a pair of loose trowsers and a short broad-tailed jacket, after the fashion of these latter times, occurs to me as more ludicrous than Liston’s Romeo’ [a reference to the actor John Liston c.1776-1846 who was a dismal failure in tragic roles but eventually famed for playing humorous characters].

Wightwick goes on to say that ‘Sir T. Lawrence’s portrait of him [Soane] … is extremely like; but the facial breadth, though in a certain light it may be warrant, was decidedly flattering in respect to what was its general seeming’. The truth of this observation can be borne out by comparing the Lawrence portrait with one in the Picture room by John Jackson painted at almost the same time, in which Soane is looking more his true age. However, in this Lawrence portrait he is holding a pair of spectacles in his left hand, acknowledging the poor eyesight that plagued him in later life.

Soane hung this picture, painted by the current President of the Academy, opposite one by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Academy’s first President from 1768-92, who had presented him with the Gold Medal for Architecture in 1776, at the start of his career. The mirror surrounding both pictures makes them seem to float in space and the reflections link each closely to the other as they are viewed by those entering the room.

The careful placing of this portrait above a model of government buildings designed by Soane for Whitehall and opposite the door through which every visitor must enter his Museum must have been done by Soane with a view to his legacy. This is Soane as he wished the world to see him.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Commissioned by Soane from the artist. Papers in the Soane archive chart the progress of the commission from January 1828 through to what was probably a final sitting in February 1829.


Soane, Description, 1830, p. 20 and 42
Soane, Description, 1835, p. 5 and 9
Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1900, p. 160
Sir Walter Armstrong, Lawrence, 1913, p. 163
A.T. Bolton, The Portrait of Sir John Soane, 1927, pp.432-438
Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1954, pp. 16, 58
Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A complete catalogue of the oil paintings, Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1989, sitter 728
Michael Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art), 2006, p. 291 and f.n.80
New Description, 2007, pp.4-5 and 101

Exhibition history

Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1829
British Institution, London, 1830
Masterpiece a Month: Presiding Geniu, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 20 December 2010 - 31 January 2011

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