Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 12:03 UK

Gallery buys rarely-seen portrait

John Philip Kemble as Cato
The painting was hung in the artistís home until his death

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence which has been unseen by the public for more than 25 years.

Sir Thomas's 1812 painting of the 18th and 19th Century actor John Philip Kemble as Cato spent most of its life in private collections.

The 8ft (2.4m) tall work has only been publicly displayed once, in 1983.

The portrait will now be included in the gallery's major exhibition of Lawrence's work opening in autumn 2010.

It was purchased for £178,500 with help from Gift Aid visitor ticket donations, gallery supporters and a grant of £55,000 from The Art Fund, the UK's largest independent art charity.

Featuring Kemble at the height of his career in the leading role of Joseph Addison's 1713 play Cato, it is one of a group of four experimental works in a new genre that Sir Thomas developed, which he called the "half-history picture".

The artist was so pleased with the work that, when it was returned to him to make a smaller copy, he refused to give it back to its owner, the Earl of Blessington.

Instead it hung in his front room to advertise his skills and the Earl only got it back on the artist's death in 1830.

Dr Lucy Peltz, 18th Century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, said she was delighted at the acquisition.

"As the finest and most resolved of Lawrence's 'half-history' portraits, the work will enrich the gallery's capacity to explore the crucial dialogue between history painting and portraiture in the period," she said.

The portrait is now on public display in the Regency Collection in the Weldon Galleries of the gallery where it will remain until the autumn, when it will be removed for conservation prior to the gallery's Lawrence exhibition next October.

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