Thomas Lawrence & Society History

The Lawrence Art Society takes its name from Sir Thomas, arguably Devizes’ most talented artist.  He was a child prodigy, who by the age of ten, was well known for drawing and selling pencil profiles of the well-heeled guests at his father’s inn,  the “Black Bear” in Devizes Market Place - it's now known as “THE BEAR HOTEL”.

In the late 1700s it was a popular coaching stop for society travellers heading for Bath.  Thomas was soon earning more than his father, who was a poor businessman, so ultimately the family moved to Bath.  Between 1780 and 1786, he painted pastel portraits of the rich and famous visitors, with success that led to him moving to London in 1787.

He was commanded to paint Queen Charlotte (currently in the National Gallery) in 1789 and, together with “Miss Farren” (hanging in the Metropolitan Museum, New York), these portraits suddenly led to him enjoying astonishing success.  He was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1791 and Royal Academician in 1794.

For the next twenty years, he consolidated this early triumph and by 1810 was acknowledged as the leading portrait painter and to some extent the head of the profession of painting in Britain.

The pinnacle of his career came in 1818 when the Prince Regent sent him to Europe as his envoy, to paint the heads of state and military leaders who had defeated Napoleon.  Before departure, he was knighted and on return, he succeeded Benjamin West as President of the Royal Academy.  The portraits painted on this tour are now displayed in the Waterloo Chamber of Windsor Castle.


Francis Humberston Mackenzie


Countess of Blessington


Arthur Wellesley
1st Duke of Wellington


Devizes' own art society has its roots in World War II when the local WEA ( workers' education association) endeavoured to bring the town a bit of culture in amongst the gloom. By the winter of 1953 they wished to add art to their list of subjects. At about the same time, a school welfare inspector called Will Perkins, who was also a pastel painter, thought it was time Devizes had an Art Society. He wrote a letter to the Gazette and Herald asking for people interested to contact him. As a result, the WEA invited him to an exploratory meeting, together with anyone who had replied to his letter. This led to an exhibition of paintings and craft works in the community centre. This was a Nissen hut on the Little Green. It had started life as a social club for employees of the firm of Chivers, was then taken over as the "Doughnut Dugout" for American servicemen stationed close to the town during World War II and became the property of the town after the war.

The exhibition was a great success and those whose principal interest was painting decided to form an Art Society as a result. An inaugural meeting was called for on 10 May 1954 at which it was decided to call it the Lawrence Society of Art. This was to honour the memory of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who began his climb to fame as Royal Portraitist and President of the Royal Academy by drawing portraits of guests at the "Bear" hotel, where his father was proprietor. Mr East, the proprietor in 1954, offered the new society the use of the Lawrence Room for meetings.

Will Perkins became the first chairman, Miss Winifred Guy who was senior mistress at the Grammar School was elected secretary and Mr David Dunne, Head of Art at the Grammar School was the first committee member. The first exhibition was planned for July, to be held in the "Bear" ballroom, meetings were planned monthly starting that September and the annual subscription was decided at 15/- (75p in modern coinage).

In that first season there were practical drawing sessions, David Dunne demonstrated portrait painting, and Guy Barton from Marlborough College gave a talk on art history. There were various slide shows on painting and materials were provided by various artists colour firms.

Membership increased rapidly and soon outgrew the Lawrence room. A bigger room in the "Bear" known as the "Studio" was made available where members were allowed to hang work permanently on display. Mr Bruno Carter, the manager of Lloyds Bank became treasurer.

By 1956 arrangements had been made to permanently display members work in the small public library, then in St Johns Street. As the paintings had to be hung above the bookshelves, they were not displayed to advantage but at least the existence of the Society was obvious to the public. This continued until the library moved to purpose built premises in Sheep Street. Occasional exhibitions continued in the library until the space was taken over for computers at the turn of the century.

Publicity was boosted by a BBC recording team visiting on exhibition hanging day. The subsequent broadcast on "The Week in the West" generated a lot of interest and crowds of people visited the exhibition. In addition, the local Army Education Unit took a group membership to encourage recruits under training in the town to exhibit.

In 1958 membership cards including a programme for the year were first issued as the number of members grew.

In 1969 monthly meetings moved to the bigger space provided by the Library lecture room and subsequently numbers dictated a further move to the Cheese Hall in the Town Hall. For a while the annual exhibition was held upstairs in the Assembly Room, then briefly at the Corn Exchange, and more recently back in the Assembly Room. In the early 2000's the date of the exhibition was moved from July to November. In 2005 a grant from the Samuel Farmer Trust was used to purchase lighting to improve the display of pictures.

In 2008 a further grant was obtained from Kennet District Council who gave away surplus funds to local worthy causes before being shut down and absorbed into Wiltshire Council. The money was used to buy a video camera, a projector and a laptop computer. These have been used ever since to improve visibility of demonstrations, to give talks and for instructional purposes. With much better visibility for those at the back of the room, membership at monthly meetings has increased considerably.

A further innovation was to associate the Society with a Young People's Art competition, which has been run since 2005. Volunteer members set up the exhibition and provide judges.