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George Romney (1734-1802)

Portraits of George Romney: An Iconography

The National Portrait Gallery is preparing a catalogue of its late 18th century collection for publication in 2003. The text is the work of John Ingamells, whose post is funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art. This extract from the catalogue is a first complete draft of the section devoted to portraits of George Romney. Catalogue entries for portraits in the National Portrait Gallery are followed by an iconography of portraits of Romney in other collections.

Descriptions of Romney

'The person of Romney was rather tall, his features were broad and strong, his hair was dark, his eyes indicated much vigour, and still more acuteness of mind. His feelings were perilously acute. They made him a man of many frailties, but the primary characteristic of his nature was that true Christian charity, which more than compensates for manifold imperfections' (William Hayley; Romney 1809, pp.300-01).

'shy, private, studious and contemplative; conscious of all the disadvantages of a very stinted education; of a habit naturally hypochondriac. With aspen nerves, that every breath could ruffle' (R. Cumberland, Memoirs, 1807, ii, p.211).

Portraits of Romney in the National Portrait Gallery

George Romney
by George Romney
circa 1765
NPG 2814

2814 ... Self-portrait c.1765-70

Pencil 14.6 x 10.2 (5 3/4 x 4); cursory figure sketches verso, including a standing woman with child.

Collections : [in the Romney sale, Christie's, 24 May 1894, lots 135-137 were drawings and sketches 'Studies for Portraits']; a Lady, 'acquired from the Great Grand-daughter of Romney'; Sotheby's, 17 January 1898, lot 177; William Ward; M.H. Spielmann by 1904, from whom purchased 1936.

Exhibition : Genial Company, Nottingham, Edinburgh 1987(67).

Literature : Ward & Roberts, i, p.1; ii, p.134.

The identity is traditional; the pose is that of a self portrait, and the sitter's apparent age suggests the date of c.1765-70.

959 ... Self-portrait 1784

Canvas 127 x 101.5 (50 x 40); strip lined 1975.

Brown eyes, greying hair, reddish-brown coat; there are the faintest parallel lines running across the canvas just above elbow level and the incomplete background may hint at a brooding sky.

Collections : Given by the artist to William Hayley by whom given c.1820 to the Rev. John Romney; by descent to Miss Elizabeth Romney;1 Romney sale, Christie's, 24 May 1894, lot 186, bt. Agnew for the NPG.

Engravings : W. Ridley 1803 (small bust length oval, the drapery finished); C. Watson 1809 (head only); W.T. Fry 1817; T. Wright 1830.

Exhibitions : British Institution 1862(193); National Portrait Exhibition 1867(528); Romney, Kenwood, 1961(32); Lady Hamilton, Kenwood, 1972(3); Romney, Leger Galleries, 1984(1); Regency Portraits, Kenwood, 1986; Treasures 1995-96(16).

Literature : Romney 1809, pp.86, 94, 254; Romney 1830, p.192; H. Maxwell, Romney, 1902, p.187(330); Ward & Roberts, 1904, ii, p.134; Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, George Romney, 1904, p.124(330); A.B. Chamberlain, Romney, 1910, pp.121-3, 229, 244, 264, 331; C. Saumarez Smith, Quarto (Friends of Abbot Hall), xxxiv, 1996, pp.22-27.

1 Elizabeth Romney the last Romney occupant of Whitestock Hall, Ulverton; the house was completed in 1806 by John Romney (1758-1832), the painter's only son, and descended through his son John (1817-75) and grandsons John (b.1851) and Lawrence (b.1857); after monetary difficulties, Whitestock then passed to the grandson's two aunts, Mrs Brooks (d.1889) and Miss Elizabeth Romney (d.1893) who moved from Coniston, the latter bringing with her 'a few good Romney pictures which she had bought from time to time'; the house was finally sold in 1901 (Chamberlain, pp.223, 227-28).

The most impressive of Romney's self portraits, no.959 was painted for William Hayley of Eartham. He recalled that in the autumn of 1784 Romney 'began at my request the striking resemblance of himself in oil, which may be regarded as the best of his portraits the frontispiece to this volume with the year of his age, forty-nine [i.e. between December 1783 and November 1784]. It well expresses that pensive vivacity, and profusion of ideas, which a spectator might discover in his countenance, whenever he sat absorbed in studious meditation'.1
Elsewhere he wrote that it showed Romney 'as he appeared in the most active season of his existence'.2 Twenty years later a slightly different account was retailed by the artist's son, John Romney, who wrote that no.959 was begun in the autumn of 1782 and afterwards given to Hayley 'who did not allow him to finish it, but hurried it off to Eartham without delay'; the portrait was 'extremely like, and full of character' and showed his father at the age of forty eight [i.e. between December 1782 and November 1783].3 John Romney's account was repeated by Chamberlain in 1910.4 Though neither Hayley nor John Romney was infallible,5 the account of the former, as the patron and the earlier writer, might here be accepted.6

1 Romney 1809, p.94.
2 Ibid., p.254.
3 Romney 1830, pp.192-93; he also addressed a lamentable sonnet 'To my Father's portrait, painted by himself'.
4 A.B. Chamberlain, Romney, 1910, p.123, considered John Romney usually more accurate than Hayley.
5 Or generous, e.g. 'Mr Hayley's friendship [with Romney] was grounded on selfishness, and the means, by which he maintained it was flattery .. whatever errors [the artist] may have committed, they were mainly owing to the counsel, or instigation of Mr Hayley' (Romney 1830, p.139).
6 H. Maxwell, Romney, 1902, succeeded in using both dates: 1784 on p.106, and 1782 on p.187.

George Romney
by Mary Barret
circa 1798
NPG 1881


1881 ... By Mary Barret 1798

Ivory 7.2 x 5.8 (2 7/8 x 2 1/4)1

Collections : Miss Elizabeth Romney (see above, NPG 959, n1); Romney sale, Christie's, 24 May 1894, lot 140 (Portrait of G. Romney, in 1798, by M. Barrett); Ernest E. Leggatt, by whom presented 1920.

Brown eyes, white hair, dark grey coat with white stock.

Exhibitions : Cumbrian Characters, Kendal, 1968(30).

Literature : Richard Walker, Miniatures. 300 Years of the English Miniature Illustrated from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, no.59.

1 Old backing inscribed in Ernest Leggatt's hand: George Romney in 1798 Painted by Miss M Barrett a pupil of Romneys Purchased May 24 1894 at the sale of the late Miss Romney of Whitestock Hall Ulverstone.

The artist was studying under Romney in 1797,1 and the date of 1798 assigned to no.1881 at the Romney sale is here accepted. In 1798 Romney was suffering from 'lassitude of body, and restlessness of mind,' but in May he was 'very chearfully amused by sitting to a lady of the house [of the late Jeremiah Meyer], for his portrait; it was an ex tempore production; a rapid sketch; but a very striking resemblance'.2 This may possibly refer to no.1881 or to another Barret portrait.

1 She was listed 'At Mr Romney's', RA catalogue 1797.
2 Romney 1809, p.281.


In 1809 Caroline Watson engraved on one plate 'Three portraits of Romney by himself at different periods of his life in Oil in water colours and in crayons all painted at Eartham' (for Romney 1809, f.p..332), see NPG 959, and below under 1778 and 1799.

Self Portraits

c.1755-56 Painting, sent to his wife from York. Untraced. 'It was hard and laboured, and had all the appearance of a first essay' (Romney 1830, p.17).

c.1765-70 Drawing, see NPG 2814.

c.1767 Painting, half-length wearing a wig and cloak. Romney sale, 24 May 1894, lot 183, as aged 'about 35'. Engraved W.T. Fry 1822 after a drawing made by J. Jackson in 1817 'from an original Picture by himself in the Possession of his Son, the Revd John Romney'.

1778 Watercolour, bust length wearing a tricorne hat. Untraced, drawn at Eartham. Engraved C. Watson 1809 as aged 46 (Romney 1809, p.86).

c.1780 Painting, bust length to right, a vigorous sketch. Christie's, 8 June 1995, lot 28. Inscribed verso: 'Given to his pupil James Rawlinson'. The head compares with that in the 1778 self portrait.

1784 Painting, see NPG 959.

1787 11 August: 'The Picture of Mr Romney was sent to Willm Hayley Esq from the Whit Heart Burrow' (Romney ledger, NPG). Unidentified.

1795? Painting, half length to left, with his own thin white hair. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY (15.30.37). Probably the 'head of himself not entirely finished, without spectacles, though he had been in the habit of using glasses for many years' painted in 1795 (Romney 1830, p.239). A version, in which he looks much younger, with Spink, London, 1921.

1799 Crayons, wearing spectacles, completed on 6 March. Formerly William Hayley (Romney 1809, pp.293-94). Engraved C. Watson 1809. Copied by Thomas Hayley (W. Hayley, Memoirs, 1823, ii, pp.451-52).

By other Artists

c.1790? Silhouette by Daniel Walker, profile to right, markedly receding hair with pig-tail. Miss Walker, Tooting, 1864 (tracing by Scharf in NPG copy of Romney 1809).

1795 Plaster medallion by Thomas Hayley, profile to right 'in the decline of life' (W. Hayley, Memoirs, 1823, ii, p.144). Untraced; Romney sale, Christie's, 24 May 1894, lot 148. Engraved C. Watson 1809 from a drawing by Maria Denman (Romney 1809, p.255).

1797 Bust by Thomas Hayley, 'a little less than life'. Untraced (Romney 1809, p.269; W. Hayley, Memoirs, 1823, ii, p.357).

1798 Miniature by Mary Barret, see NPG 1881.

1799 Painting by M.A. Shee, three-quarter length standing looking right. Untraced. Exhibited RA 1799(271). Engraved W. Bond 1810; W.C. Edwards (head only). In 1798 Romney had sold to Shee the lease of his house in Cavendish Square (where he had succeeded Francis Cotes; Romney 1809, p.290).

A bust of Romney by S.N. Babb 1909 on the south front Victoria and Albert Museum.


Two paintings by Romney of 1796, The Four Friends (Abbot Hall AG, Kendal; exhibited Art Treasures of England RA 1998, no.57) and Flaxman modelling the bust of Hayley (Yale Center for British Art), each contain an insignificant head of the artist: 'from an excess of modesty, or from capricious indolence, [Romney] has so slighted each portrait of himself, in the two pictures, that both may be considered rather as caricatures, than fair likenesses of the painter' (Romney 1809, p.254). A version of the second composition, without Romney's head, is NPG 101, see R. Walker Regency Portraits, 1985, pp.186-87.

The so-called Artist with his Wife and Friends on Lake Windermere, exhibited Kenwood 1961(6), holds no significance as portraiture.

Of several pictures falsely identified as self portraits, mention might be made of those in the Uffizi (774A) and the Louvre (RF1095); the former remains unattributed, the latter is perhaps by George Willison.


Romney 1809

William Hayley, The Life of George Romney Esq, 1809

Romney 1830

John Romney, Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Romney, 1830

Ward & Roberts

Humphry Ward and W. Roberts, Romney: A Biographical and Critical Essay with a Catalogue Raisonne of His Works, 2 vols., 1904


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