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.
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
(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.
the Grand Manner
Exhibited to great acclaim in
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
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.
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.
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
(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.
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.