Overview

George Romney (1734-1802)

The year 2002 marks the bi-centenary of the death of George Romney, one of the leading artists in Britain during the last quarter of the 18th century. Romney was born and died in the north-west, although he made his name in London. At the height of his career he was more fashionable than Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough as a society portraitist, but all his life he wanted to paint elevated historical and literary subjects. He lacked the confidence to carry out many of his most ambitious projects, but in the last fifteen years of his working life, under the spell of his favourite model and muse Emma Hart, later the celebrated Lady Hamilton, he produced a sequence of Shakespearean and other fancy subjects which count among the most imaginative and poetic canvases of their time.

The association of Romney's name with Lady Hamilton's in the Victorian era contributed to the subsequent eclipse of his reputation as a serious artist. In the 20th century, Romney was gradually re-evaluated as a brilliant, spontaneous draughtsman whose mind teemed with ideas, but who lacked the application to turn his sketches into finished works. Romney's mature drawings were recognised as having been highly influential on a group of younger contemporaries such as John Flaxman and William Blake, and their modernity has appealed to many twentieth-century artists.

This is the first ever exhibition which surveys the whole range of Romney's art, from his grandest full-length portraits to the tiny thumbnail studies preserved in sketchbooks. It reveals an ambitious and progressive artist who developed and re-invented himself continuously.


Romney's Early Career
Romney was born on the outskirts of Dalton-in-Furness in 1734. From 1755 to 1757 he was apprenticed in Kendal to Christopher Steele, a roving provincial portraitist who had been trained by the noted French artist Carle van Loo. Romney's early style, with its bright colour and precocious skill with drapery, reflects this background. He was also influenced by the north-west's leading artist, Arthur Devis. Devis specialised in small-scale, whole-length portraits in carefully observed indoor and outdoor settings and was one of the first masters of the conversation piece, a distinctively English brand of portraiture closely attuned to middle-class pursuits and sensibilities.

Working in Kendal and Lancaster, Romney became a favourite portraitist with local patrons. He also made a handful of more elaborate, experimental paintings such as the remarkable King Lear in the Tempest Tearing off his Robes (cat. 7), the first product of his lifelong fascination with Shakespeare. In 1762, ambitious to succeed as a history painter, Romney left the north-west for London. Exchanging a life of local celebrity for one of obscurity in the capital, he embarked on a period of financial hardship as he struggled to make his reputation. Few paintings survive from his first four years there, and he was twice obliged to return briefly to the north-west, where he could count on receiving commissions.

Towards the Grand Manner
Returning to London after his second trip home, in 1767, Romney moved into new lodgings in Great Newport Street, near Covent Garden. This was a turning point in his career. For the first time he had a painting room large enough to carry out whole-length portraits in the grand manner popularised over the previous decade by Joshua Reynolds. The Leigh Family (cat. 19), an unconventional, almost heroic mixture of conversation piece and classical frieze, was the first fruit of his move.

Exhibited to great acclaim in 1768, The Leigh Family plunged Romney into competition with Reynolds. Over the next four years Romney painted a series of ambitious works which appear to have been designed to publicly upstage Reynolds, newly-elected first President of the Royal Academy. Portraits such as Mrs. Yates as the Tragic Muse (cat. 35) show his adeptness with the vocabulary of neo-classicism, in which pose, costume, props and even the handling of pictorial space combine to give the work a fashionable suggestion of classical antiquity. However, many of the patrons most likely to recognise Romney's mastery of this style would be less impressed that he had not yet studied its sources at first hand, in Italy. Recognising this, Romney left London for Rome in March 1773.

Cavendish Square
Romney returned from Italy in July 1775 and a few months later moved into expensive new premises in Cavendish Square. The gamble paid off. He quickly attracted many new patrons and within three years was the most fashionable portrait painter in London. The Leveson-Gower Children (cat. 58), his portrait of the five youngest children of one of the best-connected aristocrats in England, was a set-piece demonstration of his capabilities. It set the tone for many of his best later portraits: broadly and informally painted, but with a subtle sense of design.

Romney remained the leading society portraitist in London until well into the 1790s, despite his radical political sympathies, which became clear after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. He complained increasingly of being 'shackled' to portraiture, and for much of his later career he tried to break free to paint more imaginative literary and historical pictures. Shakespeare's plays, which remained his favourite literary source, inspired him to produce some of the most poetic and visionary paintings executed in England towards the close of the 18th century.

Romney's Draughtsmanship
For Romney, drawing came as naturally as breathing. He started to draw long before he began his apprenticeship as a painter, and in his declining years, he remained a powerful draughtsman long after mounting depression and infirmity had sapped his will to paint. His approach to painting was underpinned by the language of drawing, laying stress on outline, direct expression, simplicity and spontaneity.

Four chief stylistic phases are distinguishable in Romney's drawings. Up until the end of the 1760s a delicate pencil technique, the expression of a slightly tentative artistic personality, predominates, most notably in the Kendal Sketchbook (cat. 10). This gave way, around 1770, to more confident drawings in pen and ink, suggestive of greater maturity in a rapid, jagged style. After 1775, under the impact of his visit to Italy, Romney began to use sepia and later black wash over lyrical pen outlines. This technique gave full expression to the summary nature of his vision, concentrating powerfully on essentials and eliminating incidental detail. Later still, from around 1790, Romney's drawing became even more reductive as his obsessive rehearsal of complex figure motifs intensified. He returned increasingly to pencil to explore abstract effects of mass and light and shade, abandoning his interest in outline, beauty of form, or expression.

The Cartoons
Executed in black chalk on six or nine sheets of paper glued together at the edges, the cartoons are a unique aspect of Romney's work. The sculptor John Flaxman described them as "examples of the sublime and terrible, at that time perfectly new in English art". Romney began making them in the mid-1770s, either towards the end of his stay in Rome or immediately after his return to London. In Rome, Romney had worked in the circle of the Swiss-born artist Henry Fuseli, who made highly finished, monochrome drawings on historical subjects intended to compete with paintings at public exhibitions. Although his cartoons were larger and more severe in style than Fuseli's drawings, Romney initially seems to have envisaged them as operating in the same way, as 'virtual paintings' rather than as preparatory studies - the traditional function of cartoons for earlier artists.

Romney made cartoons for about ten years, using them to explore subjects from classical and modern literature with which he closely identified. Although they appear controlled in comparison with his smaller, more spontaneous drawings, it would be a mistake to regard them as the final distillation of his ideas about the subjects concerned. Drawn at night after hours of work on portrait commissions, they acted as a release for his energies and were the expression of his most powerful creative urges.

From the first, the cartoons' fragile medium and construction placed them at risk. Some are known to have been destroyed in Romney's lifetime. The eighteen in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery are the only ones now known to survive. They were presented to the Liverpool Royal Institution in 1823 by the artist's son, who had already had to conserve them. Later restorations have altered their appearance further still.