John Philip Kemble
Oil on canvas
Hamlet : Hamlet
height (frame): 121cm
width (frame): 100cm
Painted for Harriet Lee of Bristol; then by descent to the late W H Lee Ewart; bought by Sir John Gielgud at auction; bequeathed by him to the Garrick Club, 2001
Sir John Soane Museum, The Cloud Capped Towers in Soane's Imagination, 21 Apr 2016-1 Oct 2016
Original: Tate Gallery 142 oil on canvas 306.1 x 198 [N00142] exh R. A. 1801 (197); Folger Library, after Lawrence oil 76.2 x 49.3; Theatre Museum, London (No 17) oil 61 x 45.5, prov: Mrs W. E. Kemble, given to TM 1988. See P0080 and P0277 for prints taken from this painting; the Garrick Club also holds a studio version of the full length Tate painting, see G0386
Kenneth Garlick, "Sir Thomas Lawrence" 1954, p44
Lawrence's acquiantance with the remarkable Kemble family went back to his boyhood days in Bath, and his particular friendship with John Philip Kemble survived his turbulent affairs with Kemble's two nieces, Maria and Sally Siddons. He painted several pictures of Kemble, including dramatic historical depictions of the great actor in some of his famous roles. The finest was certainly his portrayal of Kemble as Hamlet, probably the actor's most famous role and the one he chose for his first appearance in Dublin in 1781, and his first appearance in London at Drury Lane in 1783. Lawrence's full length portrait of Kemble as Hamlet [Tate N00142] was exhibited at the Royal Academy to great acclaim in 1801. It was bought by Mr Maddocks, MP for Boston, who wanted to place it over the altar of the village church of Tremadoc near Caernarvon. This surprising request was refused by the local bishop and Maddocks then offered the painting for sale. Lawrence himself bought it for the Marquis of Abercorn, one of his most important early patrons and a great lover of the theatre, but Abercorn died before he could take possession of it and it remained in the artist's possession until it was bought by George IV in 1824.
This striking half length version was painted for his friend Harriet Lee, who had admired the full length portrait but disliked the sitter's legs. Harriet Lee was the daughter of John Lee, the celebrated actor-manager, and with her sister Sophia, is credited as one of the first to predict Lawrence's eminence as a painter. The Lee sisters were both talented writers of both novels and plays, and were close friends of both Lawrence and the Kemble family. When Sophia's tragedy, "Almeyda Queen of Grenada" opened at Drury Lane in 1796 both John Philip Kemble and his sister Mrs Siddons were in the cast. Harriet Lee's best known work was "The Cantebury Tales". Harriet outlived her sister by 27 years and died aged 94 in full possession of her remarkable intellect.