This boldly drawn sheet of hand studies was made by Lawrence in 1800. Executed in black and red chalk, the sensitive drawings almost certainly show Lawrence’s own hands and is the most spectacular of a sequence of drawings of hands and feet Lawrence made at this date. Writing about Lawrence, Delacroix believed that 'la vérité de son dessin' was what underlay the quality of his paintings and described his drawing as 'incomparable'. In his drawn portraiture he was rivalled in his own period only by Ingres. This impressive, incisive drawing points to both Lawrence’s extraordinary abilities as a draughtsman and the importance of drawing to his practice as a portraitist.
A child prodigy, Thomas Lawrence was self-trained as a draughtsman and made small portraits in pastels in Bath for three guineas each before moving to London in 1787. He attended the Royal Academy Schools briefly but pressure from commissions forced him to leave. He exhibited portraits in pastels, chalks and smaller oils at the Royal Academy each year. Drawing was very much part of Lawrence’s life, at the Academy he met the older painter William Hamilton, Lawrence’s early biographer recorded that Lawrence spent some of the ‘happiest days of his life’ with the Hamiltons and that they used to draw a great deal from the antique statues at night, whilst Mrs Hamilton would read to them either poetry, history, or works of the imagination.’
Lawrence considered his finished portrait drawings such a vital element of his work and reputation that he later commissioned a series of engravings not only to record them but also to make them available to a wider audience. Again, no study has been made of this aspect of his work, but from the 1810s he commissioned Frederick Christian Lewis to engrave the finest of his chalk portrait drawings in the stipple manner and Lewis was employed almost entirely on this until Lawrence's death. This remarkable project is singular amongst British artists of the date.
This beautifully executed drawing, demonstrates Lawrence’s virtuosic handling of red and black chalk. Signed and dated to the summer of 1800, it was made at a moment that his professional career was flourishing. Whilst the posed hands accord with the type of gesture Lawrence was using in his portraiture at this date, the studies are unlikely to be preparatory for a specific portrait but an autonomous, self-portrait study. By 1800 Lawrence was assembling a magnificent collection of old master drawings and would have been acutely aware of the powerful tradition of artists’ treating their own hands, from Dürer to Raphael. Lawrence’s posthumous sale held at Christie’s in 1830 included a lot of ‘Five – Careful studies of Hands, &c., black and white chalk, on brown paper, 1793’, pointing to Lawrence’s career-long fascination with studying hands. According to Angerstein, the present drawing seems likely to be from an album of studies that belonged to the nineteenth-century dealer John Wilson, although the present drawing is far more finished and sophisticated than any of those drawings with a Wilson provenance now in the British Museum.