Saturday, December 12, 2015

The ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ from Persia

'Abu’l Hasan' 35”x27½” Oil on canvas
In 1810 one of London’s most prominent celebrities was Mirza Abu’l Hasan (later given the title “Khan”), the ‘Envoy Extraordinary’, who was dispatched by the Shah of Persia Fath Ali to the Court of King George III. He had arrived in London in 1809 trying to negotiate Britain’s involvement against Russian involvement in the Caucasus. He wasn’t ultimately successful due to shifting politics caused by the ongoing Napoleonic wars, but he cut an exotic and dashing figure in London’s high society.

Sir Thomas Lawrence whipped off this portrait of him in just four two-hour sittings in June 1810. Lawrence had to be especially quick as the painting had immediately to go back to Persia with Mirza Abu’l Hasan.

This small copy might be another glue-size tempera painting - they are fun to do and can easily be executed at home on my kitchen table before I go into town to the studio. However, I might just do it in oil, the main drawback of tempera is the difficulty of overpainting due to its tendency to "lift" - it's only at the drawing stage, so I have options.

Lawrence's original is simply gobsmacking in its painterly virtuosity, I feel one of the greatest English portraits ever made (although of a Persian), and have made a point of  seeing it every time it has been on public display. It simply reeks “Englishness” in painting - a Scotsman, such as Raeburn, nor a Frenchman such as David or Ingres, would not have approached the task in quite the same way. It might be the slight “staginess”, or the understatedly confident poise that Lawrence invokes, but it is undoubtedly “English” in its every sensibility.

'Envoy Extraordinary' 12”x9” Glue tempera on canvas

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