Lawrence the person


From photographs and various accounts of Lawrence’s physique at the time, we know that he
was short in stature (just under 5 foot 6 inches), of medium build and surprising muscularity.
By setting himself challenges such as fasting, doing without sleep and making long cycle
rides, he had methodically developed his powers of mental as well as physical endurance.
Whilst one notices in photographs that his face was rather long, with a broad brow and strong
jaw line, his gaze into the camera’s lens is often quizzical and slightly mocking. In some of
the fine photographs (1931) by Howard Coster, Lawrence’s blue eyes have a striking
intensity.7

By temperament Lawrence was a loner. As a teenager he displayed ascetic inclinations and
a dislike of noisy conditions. Significantly, he did not immerse himself in the broader aspects
of university life such as organized sport and social activities. This was partly a matter of
personal choice and partly due to the fact that he lived at the family home in Oxford for most of his three undergraduate years at Jesus College. He could be charming company and kept
his friends but not everyone appreciated his sense of humour and sometimes provocative
attitudes: some contemporaries either disliked or mistrusted him. He had his eccentricities but
these were no more outstanding than those of many fellow students. Indeed, society expected
a certain amount of unorthodox behaviour from such a relatively small and privileged student
body.

Throughout his life he would contemplate the possibility of setting up a printing press for
fine books. His model was William Morris (1834-96), the brilliant Victorian designer, central
figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement and founder of Kelmscott Press. One might imagine
Lawrence, in some earlier existence, as a young monk in a great medieval monastery such as
that so memorably evoked by Umberto Eco8 , silently bent over illuminated manuscripts in the scriptorium or searching for ancient texts in the labyrinthine library. However, unusually for an intellectual, there was an underlying drive toward challenging physical action, toward adventure. Having a birthday within one day of that of Napoleone Buonaparte, a fact that he relished, he probably sympathized with the latter’s belief in Providence. When young, Lawrence certainly seemed to believe in Destiny.

  1. Howard Coster (1885-1959), the ‘Photographer of Men’. The National Portrait Gallery,
    London holds a remarkable collection of his portraits of contemporary personages.
    <www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person.php?LinkID=mp01039&role=art> []
  2. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1983) and Reflections on the Name of the Rose (London: Secker & Warburg, 1985). []