Review: Intimate Portraits @ The British Museum

By Londonist Last edited 118 months ago
Review: Intimate Portraits @ The British Museum

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Mary Hamilton (detail), 1789
One of our favourite places to pass the time at the British Museum (apart from gazing lovingly at the roof while dodging schoolchildren) is the Prints and Drawings room. Way up in the rafters, beyond the hordes of digital camera-toting necrophiles in the Ancient Egyptian gallery, the temporary exhibitions here are not only small pieces of loveliness, but they’re uncrowded and free. How many more boxes do you need ticked?

Intimate Portraits offers up a vast selection of drawings, miniatures and pastels from the 1730s to 1830s, giving a surprisingly candid picture of life in Regency and Georgian Britain. Where oil paintings from the time are all heaving group portraits of bodices, pedigree dogs and classical contrivances, some of these sketches look like they’ve been rustled up in an afternoon.And yet the thin luminescence of pastel on paper makes the finer portraits as near to photographic as the 18th century gets. On others the lush, textured papers highlight the immediacy of chalk or ink drawings.

But it’s the subjects themselves that are the real drawcards. A tightly-framed Reynolds self portrait glares confidently off the page, his unbuttoned shirt and unkempt hair that could easily put him on today’s Peaches Geldof gossip pages. Nearby, a young Robbie Burns looks so fresh and beefy you’d expect to see him taking to the field against the Auld Enemy at Twickenham. And there are any number of marvellous portraits of society characters of the time. Look out for the French diplomat who was partial to dressing up in women’s clothing - he’s depicted in a dress with the medal pinned to his chest - or the weatherbeaten peasant who, according to the artist, mowed two acres of grass a day.

Typically BM, the show is intimate but thorough. The only thing we’re left wondering is why the vast majority of sitters look towards the left of the frame. Any answers?

By Tom Gray

The Intimate Portrait: Drawings, miniatures and pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence is free and at The British Museum, Room 90, until 31 May.

Last Updated 10 March 2009