Lawrence was born in Bristol on 13 April 1769, the youngest of sixteen children of Thomas Lawrence and Lucy Reade. A boy prodigy without formal training, Lawrence was renowned by the age of ten for his profile drawings in pencil of the visitors to his father's hostelry, an established coaching inn on the London-to-Bath road. After the family moved to Bath in 1780 he was taught by William Hoare and worked also in pastel. In 1787 he settled in London, taking lodgings in Leicester Fields not far from Sir Joshua Reynolds, who encouraged him to use his studio for studying and copying. He spent three months at the Royal Academy schools, chiefly drawing in the antique school, but gradually abandoning his practice in pastel to begin oil painting.
Lawrence exhibited his first full-length portrait at the Academy in 1789, and his contributions the following year established his reputation. In 1791 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, in 1792 he succeeded Reynolds as Painter-in-Ordinary to the King, and in 1794 he became a full Academician. From 1793 he had pupils and studio assistants.
In spite of his success, Lawrence was often in debt, mismanaging his financial affairs and living well beyond his means. He moved in professional and theatrical circles, and became emotionally involved with two sisters, but never married.
In 1814 Lawrence was commissioned by the prince regent to paint the allied heads of state and generals for what was to become the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, and in 1815 he was knighted. He worked on this scheme in Aix-la-Chapelle and Vienna between 1818 and 1819, and went on to Rome (his first visit to Italy) to paint the Pope. He returned to England in 1820, after staying nearly three months in Florence, to find himself elected president of the Royal Academy in succession to West.
Lawrence worked unremittingly; there was a pressing demand for portraits from distinguished persons. He was also an insatiable collector--one of the principal reasons for his financial difficulties--but his unrivaled collection of Old Master drawings, offered after his death to the king (at a bargain price) and, failing his acceptance, to the government, was refused by both and subsequently dispersed. Lawrence died in London on 20 January 1830.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 152-153.]