What do the present queen and her 16th century namesake; Vivien Leigh (in the roles of Cleopatra and Blanche DuBois); scenes from Romeo and Juliet and these ‘builders’ have in common?
‘The Builders’ by A K Lawrence Copyright: The Governor and Company of the Bank of England
A clue – naturally, there’s a Heaton connection. No, nothing to do with The People’s Theatre but, yes, the answer is arts related. They were all depicted by a notable artist who spent part of his life in Heaton. Not Kingsley Place’s John Gilroy (though he too painted the Queen) nor John Wallace (landscapes were more his forte) but a painter still more lauded in fine art circles. You may not have heard of him but you may well have seen his work.
Alfred Kingsley Lawrence was born in Lewes, Sussex on 4 October 1893, the third son of Fanny Beatrice and Herbert Lawrence, a solicitor. His father, however, died, when Alfred was only around a year old and when the boy was just three years old, his mother remarried George Giffin, a customs officer.
By 1901, while Fanny continued to live in Lewes with the children (by now there was a younger half brother, George junior too), her husband seems to have relocated to Newcastle (We don’t know why.) and was living in Roxburgh Place in Heaton. The family eventually followed, although one of Alfred’s older brothers, Frederick, had died in 1906, aged 14 in Sussex. By 1911, they were living in Sandyford. Alfred, now 17, was a ‘civil engineer’s clerk and student’.
He was, in fact, a student at the King Edward VII School of Art, Armstrong College, where his teachers included Professor Richard Hatton, who was soon to found the Newcastle University gallery which still bears his name. A local newspaper article in 1925 said that ‘not since the[ school of art] was founded has a student displayed such conspicuous talent or worked so consistently and with such conspicuous talent as a student of painting’.
Alfred won the John Christie scholarship, aged 18, in 1912; the School Medal for the most brilliant student in his year in 1913 as well as Silver Medal s awarded by the Royal College of Art in both 1913 and 1914. In the latter year, he was also awarded a Royal Exhibition Scholarship tenable at the Royal College of Art in London.
But by now the country was at war.
It was apparently while at the King Edward VII School of Art that Alfred met his future wife, Margaret Crawford Younger, a Heaton lass. Margaret was the daughter of Robert Younger, a marine engineer, and his wife, Catherine, who lived at 42 Heaton Road. The family were very comfortably off: the 1901 census shows a governess lived with the family, presumably to home school the four daughters.
By 1911, Robert had retired: local trade directories now refer to him as a ‘Gentleman’ and no occupations are listed in the census for the daughters, now aged between 21 and 27. Alfred married Margaret on 26 June 1915 and joined his wife at his parents in law’s on Heaton Road (by now known as Elmire House), although mostly he was away from home.
In 1914, he had voluntarily joined the Northumberland Fusiliers’ 19th battalion (2nd Tyneside Pioneers), which was posted to France in 1916. Alfred, a Second Lieutenant, was mentioned in despatches in January 1917, most likely for his actions during the latter stages of the Battle of the Somme. Upon discharge in 1919, he resumed his scholarship at the Royal College of Art. He won a travelling scholarship to Italy in 1922 and in 1923 won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which allowed him to study in Rome for three years. Paintings by Lawrence during this period and during his military service can readily be found on line. Influenced by his time in Italy, he often painted classical themes.
From this point on, commissions came thick and fast and Alfred’s adopted city was among the first in the queue. The Hatton Gallery owns two works ‘Male Nude’ and ‘Female Nude’ painted in 1922 (hopefully they’ll be on display when the gallery reopens later this year) and his magnificent ‘The Building of Hadrian’s Bridge (Pons Aelii) over the Tyne, c122’ is in the Laing. (But not on display at the time of writing).
When next you’re in London, head to St Stephen’s Hall in the Houses of Parliament,where you’ll find his ‘Queen Elizabeth Commissions Sir Walter Raleigh to Discover Unknown Lands, 1584’ and to the Bank of England, which commissioned a group of large oil paintings, of which the above work is one.
In 1930, Lawrence was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and in 1938 he became a Royal Academician, a huge honour for an artist. The photograph below shows the Academicians selecting works for the 1939 summer exhibition. AK Lawrence is nearest the camera on the right. The president, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens is holding a letter D, which stands for ‘doubtful’ (for inclusion in the exhibition).
Royal Academicians, 1939 Copyright: Royal Academy of Arts, London
Lawrence himself exhibited in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition almost much every year from 1929 until his death, a period of almost 50 years.
His ‘Study for Leda’ was presented to the Queen as part of the institution’s coronation gift in 195 3 and is now in the Royal Collection. His painting ‘Elizabeth II at the State Opening of Parliament 1962’ is in the Parliamentary Art Collection.
In the 1920s, the young Alfred was described as ‘shy of temperament but studious and painstaking, with sound and erudite knowledge and the crowning gift of imagination. He has high ideals and his conception of art, particularly in the employment of the figure, is lofty and virile’.
Lawrence’s entry in the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ refers to his great interest in the theatre and suggests that that he might have been a successful professional actor ‘particularly in heroic roles. He was a tall, dignified man with a resounding voice, a stalwart in debate, forthright in his adherence to traditions and rather grand in his renderings of Shakespeare (We wonder, did Lawrence, before he left Newcastle for London, see his Heaton neighbour, Colin Veitch, play Falstaff in the People’s first Shakespeare production in 1921?)… he was a stickler for the correct use of words…strongly against the use of photography or substitution for good draughtsmanship’.
The article also states that Margaret, with whom he had been married since their days on Heaton Road during WW1, died in 1960, after which ‘AK’, as he was known, became a rather solitary figure. Their son, Julius, had emigrated to New Zealand.
Alfred Kingsley Lawrence died suddenly on 5 April 1975 at his London home. His legacy is his art, however.
In addition to the works already mentioned, Lawrence paintings and drawings are in the collections of National Portrait Gallery; Victoria and Albert Museum; Imperial War Museum; Scottish National Portrait Gallery; National Trust; Queens College, Cambridge; Guildhall Art Gallery; Royal Society; Royal Air Force Museum and many other collections, both public and private. Digital copies of many of those in public collections can be seen here.
As recently as April 2015, A K Lawrence’s classically inspired ‘Persephone’ (1938) was the Royal Academy’s ‘Object of the Month’ and in December of the same year, the ‘Daily Telegraph’ illustrated an article about the government owned works being hidden from public view with a Lawrence painting.
And now, at last, Heaton, where he found love, has paid tribute to him.
This article was written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Research was carried out by Joe Chipchase, Christopher Durrans and Chris Jackson.
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