Satan Summoning His Legions

The unlikely star of the new Collections Gallery at the RA is Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Satan Summoning His Legions, partly because scarcely anybody has seen it before, partly because it’s so unlike anything one expects of Thomas Lawrence, the fashionable portraitist, and partly because his wispy crotch confronts the viewer with what is so obviously missing. It was painted in 1796 for the 1797 Summer Exhibition, where it was shown under the title of ‘Satan calling his Legions. First Book of Milton’. Lawrence was 28. He had been recognised as a prodigy as a child, drawing pencil portraits for customers at the Black Bear Inn in Devizes and later pastels in Bath, before moving to London with his parents in 1787 to study at the Royal Academy Schools. But already as a teenager, he had a darker side to his personality, telling Charles Eastlake in 1822 how he used to spend his nights as a teenager copying the prophets and sibyls from prints of the Sistine Ceiling. George III encouraged the Royal Academy to elect him as an Academician in 1790 when he was still under age (you had to be twenty five). He was elected in 1794, aged twenty five. Satan Summoning His Legions was presumably his bid to be taken seriously as a history painter. If so, it was extremely unsuccessful. Richard Westall thought Lawrence unqualified ‘to paint historical subjects. He has little of the creative power’ and Hoppner said that he would ‘Give £100 to have Lawrences Satan out of room, as it takes effect from his pictures’. It was his last such attempt.

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA, Satan summoning his Legions

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2 thoughts on “Satan Summoning His Legions

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    It is a very powerful work. When last was there a big Lawrence exhibition? Might he be a suitable subject for Per Rumberg, to follow up his CHARLES the FIRST ? There are so many Lawrences in other Collections – the Royal Collections, the Ashmolean etc.

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