George Romney (1734-1802)

Romney and his self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

This is the text of the annual lecture of the Romney Society given by Charles Saumarez Smith in 1995 and first published in 'Quarto' in 1996 (see Further Reading )

George Romney
by George Romney
NPG 959

The room that Romney's Self-portrait usually hangs in at the National Portrait Gallery is one of the rooms that the Gallery uses reasonably frequently for official occasions. The atmosphere of the room is strongly redolent of the late eighteenth-century literary and artistic establishment: the faces are confident and authoritative, displaying the arts in England at their most worldly and polished. Yet I have always felt that Romney is slightly out of place in this setting. It is not just a result of the fact that his Self-portrait is unfinished. There is something about the way that Romney turns his head towards the spectator as if he didn't really want to be disturbed, with his body turned horizontally across the canvas, his slightly sardonic air, a hint of aggressiveness, of him looking out quizzically at the spectator, which has always struck me as setting Romney apart from his contemporaries, as if he did not wish to join the club, but appreciated his separateness. This impression of a portrait that is distinctive in type and that it might reveal aspects of Romney's personality encouraged me to want to find out more about it.

Let me start with the known facts about the portrait. As is often the case with even ostensibly well-known paintings, there are surprisingly few secure facts in relation to Romney's Self-portrait. William Hayley, Romney's friend and biographer, says that it was painted in 1784 at Eartham, Hayley's country house halfway between Chichester and Petworth on the south downs. According to Hayley,

my annual visiter [that is, Romney] enlivened the autumn of 1784 in a manner peculiarly memorable to me, for he interested himself most kindly in the decoration of a new library, that I was then fitting up, and began at my request, on that occasion, the striking resemblance of himself in oil, which may be regarded as the best of his own portraits, and which is marked in the frontispiece to this volume with the year of his age, forty-nine. 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


Fig. 2 Mezzotint
by John Jacobé 1779, after George Romney, William Hayley
(National Portrait Gallery Archive]]

It is perhaps worth noting that it is not actually the frontispiece, but the tailpiece. Nor is it marked with his age, but simply described as one of 'Three portraits of Romney at different periods of his life'. Moreover, of another self-portrait of himself, of which there is also an engraving, Hayley says that it was painted in 1780 and 'marked with the year of his age, forty-six'. Born in 1734, Romney would have been 46 in 1780 and 49 in 1783, not 1784.

John Romney, the artist's son, who also wrote a biography of his father published in 1830, accuses his father's other biographers of inaccuracy, especially William Hayley, whom he felt was too critical of his father's weaknesses of character and, moreover, had - in some way, not clearly specified - caused the long separation of Romney from his wife and contributed to the decline of his later years. He wrote that:

In the Autumn of this year (1782) he began his own portrait, which he afterwards gave to Mr. Hayley; who did not allow him to finish it, but hurried it off to Eartham without delay. The head however, is perfect, but the rest of the figure, which could not be completed without a model, remains in statu quo. Had it, however, been suffered to remain in Cavendish Square sometime longer, an opportunity would have occurred when it might have been finished; but Mr. Hayley preferred the bird in hand. 2

Which of these two versions are we to believe ? The National Portrait Gallery has always been inclined to follow the year given by Romney junior, but, to be honest, I am not convinced. For a start, Hayley's account is slightly more circumstantial and he ties it in with an event - that is, the decoration of his library at Eartham - which is known to have taken place in September 1784 and which caused the young John Flaxman to do a portrait bust of Romney, as well as of Hayley. 3 It seems entirely plausible that Romney should have been encouraged to paint his own portrait at a time when he was sitting to Flaxman. Secondly, it seems much more plausible that Romney should have undertaken his Self-portrait as a form of relaxation when he was at Eartham, since he is known to have spent his time there working on ideas outside the mainstream of his artistic practice; and, besides, as John Romney admits, Hayley owned the portrait. Then, if one follows Hayley's movements in 1782, Romney came to stay in August, not the autumn. Hayley himself was much occupied with the writing of his Plays for a Private Theatre all through the autumn. So John Romney's version of the date of Romney painting his Self-portrait cannot be regarded as definitive.

If we assume, as Hayley suggests, that the Self-portrait was painted at Eartham in the autumn of 1784, then Romney was, indeed, not quite fifty, since he was born in December 1734. Looking at his circumstances, there was no real reason why he should not have been able to paint himself as a reasonably prosperous and successful painter at the height of his career. He had raised himself from relatively modest origins as the son of a self-improving artisan-cum-craftsman in west Cumberland. He had managed to apprentice himself to Christopher Steele, one of relatively few artists in the north-west and a man who, in spite of a somewhat rackety lifestyle, had at least trained in Paris under Carl van Loo. Romney had then managed to make just enough money out of running a lottery for the sale of his subject pictures to take himself off to London, where he was able to build up a reasonably successful career in portrait painting.

But he constantly regretted the fact that he had not been properly trained and probably recognised that he would never be taken completely seriously as an artist unless he had spent time in Rome. So, when he was nearly forty he took himself to Italy in company with the miniature painter Ozias Humphry. In Rome he was able to develop a much better understanding of both classicism, through the study of antique statuary, and of pictorial technique through the examination of Renaissance painters, including the works of Titian during a visit to Venice and of Correggio in Parma.

On his return to London in July 1775, he felt sufficiently confident of his circumstances to take a large house in the fashionable west end. It had previously belonged to the Royal Academician, Francis Cotes. The house not only had a large painting room where he could receive sitters, but also a gallery where he could show off examples of his paintings. From that point onwards he had no shortage of fashionable sitters who came for sittings of between three quarters of an hour and an hour and a half during the course of the day beginning at ten o'clock in the morning. By 1784, he was able to charge 20 guineas for a three quarter length and he was able to knock a painting off usually in a reasonably small number of sittings, for a head between three and five. He was making a fair amount of money and was described by Horace Walpole in 1780 as 'in great vogue'.

Not only was Romney professionally successful, but his life was outwardly very orderly. He would get up between the hours of seven and eight; have breakfast with friends in Gray's Inn and then return to his house in order to prepare for the first of his sitters at ten o'clock. According to William Hayley, 'At noon he took broth, or coffee, and dined at four, in the most simple manner'. 4 After dinner, he would then either go for a walk in the country - in those days it was possible to do so from Cavendish Square - take tea at Kilburn Wells or, if there was time, have dinner out in the Long Room at Hampstead, whose hill he particularly liked. On his return home he was able to spend the evening working on drawings for subject paintings, which was what really interested him, regarding his portrait painting essentially as a form of routine work necessary to make money. He had friends. He was able to take an annual holiday out in the country with William Hayley at Eartham in Sussex, where he revived his spirits by sea-bathing and playing at coits. Superficially, his life was well-ordered, as well as prosperous.

But there were undercurrents, which made him project an image of himself in his Self-portrait, which is slightly aggressive and saturnine, a face which suggests a degree of inner discontent. Why was this ? Why did a man who achieved most of what he had wanted to achieve in life suffer such anxieties that in the 1790s he went into a steep and neurotic decline?

Part of the answer, I suspect, was simply a matter of temperament. All the evidence about him suggests that he was fairly anti-social, preferring the company of a small group of close friends, rather than wishing to venture out into wider society. For example, when he was in Rome, Ozias Humphry, with whom he had travelled, described him as 'a man of uncommon concealment; in no way communicative. In what related to his art he reserved his studies, refusing to let them be seen while in Italy'. In 1778, James Northcote, who admittedly had no reason to like him because of his rivalry with Reynolds, described him in a letter to his brother as 'ambitious, sly and mean, and his pictures are hard, dry and tasteless, and such as you would not like in the least. And I am enough secure that he will never make a first rate painter.' 5

Richard Cumberland
by George Romney
circa 1776
NPG 19

And Richard Cumberland, his first and perhaps his most just biographer, described him as 'shy, private, studious and contemplative; conscious of all the disadvantages and privations of a very stinted education; of a habit naturally hypochondriac, with aspen nerves, that every breath could ruffle'. 6 Perhaps it was because, as Cumberland suggests, he felt ill-at-ease due to a lack of formal education. Perhaps he felt patronised by his much more worldly sitters. Whatever the cause, he seems to have suffered from periodic fits of gloom, which sound, from all accounts, like the symptoms of clinical depression.

Romney's son, John, who was brought up in Cumberland in the absence of his father and subsequently became a clergyman, puts the blame on Hayley. In his biography of his father, published in 1830, he wrote:

Mr. Hayley's friendship was grounded on selfishness, and the means, by which he maintained it was flattery. By this art he acquired a great ascendancy over the mind of Mr. Romney, and knew well how to avail himself of it for selfish purposes. He was able, also, by a canting kind of hypocrisy, to confound the distinctions between vice and virtue, and to give a colouring to conduct, that might, and probably did mislead Mr. Romney on some occasions. He likewise drew him too much from general society, and almost monopolized him himself, and thus narrowed the circle of his acquaintance and friends. By having intimated an intention of writing Mr. Romney's life, he made him extremely afraid of doing any thing that might give offence. There was a wrong-headedness in the general conduct of Mr. Hayley, arising from the influence of powerful passions, that disqualified him from being a judicious and prudent adviser; yet he was always interfering in the affairs of Mr. Romney, and volunteering his advice: and I have too much reason to believe, that whatever errors the latter may have committed, they were mainly owing to the counsel, or instigation of Mr. Hayley. 7

What is one to make of this attack ? Part of John Romney's hostility appears to have been irrational, as if Hayley, who only met Romney in 1776, had been responsible for Romney deserting his wife and family in 1762 and then never returning to Cumberland until the last stages of his terminal decline, when he went back to to be nursed by his long-suffering wife after an absence of nearly forty years. Part of his attack was also probably motivated by a sense of grievance that Hayley had acquired pictures which John Romney felt ought to have become the property of the family. Moreover, John Romney felt that Hayley had not done complete justice to his father in the biography which had been published in 1809 and had been slightly over-inclined to place emphasis on Romney's infirmities of character, which his son, with appropriately filial piety, wanted to correct. But still there is in Romney's attack on Hayley something more; and, since the Self-portrait seems, from the circumstances in which it was painted, very much to have been a record of Romney's friendship with Hayley, one wants to get a slightly better sense of the nature of their relationship.

They first met in 1776, when they were introduced by the miniature painter Jeremiah Meyer. Hayley had moved out of London to his house at Eartham and wanted portraits of his friends as a memento of them. Meyer obviously suggested Romney as the appropriate artist to undertake these portraits and through this commission they became friends. On October 22, 1776, Hayley wrote to Romney inviting him to stay at Eartham. The letter is very characteristic of Hayley's self-importance and slightly wheedling tone, inveigling himself into Romney's life in a way that I think it is perhaps understandable that Romney's son should subsequently have resented.

I entreat you in the name of those immortal powers, the beautiful, and the sublime, whom you so ardently adore, or, to speak the language of your favourite Macbeth, 'I conjure you by that which you profess', to moderate your intense spirit of application, which preys so fatally on your frame - exchange, for a short time, the busy scenes, and noxious air, of London, for the chearful tranquillity and pure breezes of our Southern coast. To console you for what you will quit, the daily praises of a flattering Metropolis, I will promise you the more silent, but warmer, admiration of a few friends, who join to their esteem of your talents, the most cordial solicitude for your welfare. Nor is this an idle invitation to abandon, even for a short time, either the pleasures, or profits, of your profession; but to pursue both in a manner more consistent with your health, and consequently with that glory in your art, which is, I know, your predominant passion, and which is indeed the only true Promethean fire that can make anartist immortal . 8

In 1777, Hayley published his Epistle on Painting, addressed to George Romney, which, by Hayley's own account, encouraged Romney 'not to waste too large a portion of life in the lucrative drudgery of his profession; but to aspire to the acquisition of practical excellence in the highest department of his art. 9 In other words, Hayley encouraged Romney in a slightly schizophrenic frame of mind, in which he devalued the portrait painting which Romney was able to accomplish with such admirable facility, and made him think that he might be able to achieve more lasting success by devoting himself to history painting, something which, to judge from the relatively small number of history paintings that he completed later in his career, was never going to be possible. So, once again, there are perhaps good reasons for John Romney's resentment of Hayley's influence on his father.

A further reason for John Romney thinking that Hayley was a bad influence on his father was also undoubtedly moral. This takes us into areas of Romney's life which are relatively uncharted, but which, if one is looking into his character, need to be investigated. My own view - and I don't have very much evidence for this - is that Romney was highly susceptible to younger women in a slightly voyeuristic way and that Hayley encouraged this tendency.

Emma Hamilton
by George Romney
circa 1785
NPG 294

Certainly, in 1782, two years before his Self-portrait was painted, the young Emma Hart came to sit to him. She was then the mistress of Charles Greville, and all the evidence suggests that Romney fell in love with her, idolizing the highly original appearance and manner of the young seventeen-year old. Then in 1790, when Romney was nearly sixty, he went to Paris with Hayley and the following year was consorting with a young French mistress known as Thelassie, a liaison which was certainly encouraged by Hayley, who wanted to take her on as his secretary. But the most teasing piece of evidence relating to Romney's proclivities comes from a letter written following his death by Richard Cumberland, his old friend and first biographer, to Thomas Greene, another old friend - indeed, probably his oldest, as well as being the lawyer who managed his financial affairs. Cumberland wrote as follows:

We were prepared for the Loss of Mr. Romney: in fact he was lost to us before his death. He will however live in our Remembrance by his virtues, & in the Worlds rememberance by his Works. He was an Extra ordinary man, For he owed nothing to Education, and his Art, like his genius, seem'd in him to be the Gift of Inspiration. I said we shall remember him for his Virtues, we have also to bewail his Failings and Infirmities. Elegant in his taste, and abstimious in his Habits, He was betray'd into Impurities, - which morality canott pardon, tho Candour may fairly plead that he kept his Weaknes out of sight, and never offended the Decorum of Society, or lost his Respect for virtue, tho' his practice did not strictly conform to it. To this we must impute the Irregularities of his Temper, the abstraction of his mind, and all those nervous and hypochondriacal affections, which sunk him in his own esteem, sapp'd his constitution, antisipated all the Symptoms of old age and finally struck him down into the Grave, a man worn out before his Time. 10

As one records this epitaph and as one investigates the circumstances in which Romney's Self-portrait was painted, I hope that it begins to be clear why his brow was furrowed. He seems to have suffered from some form of inner discontent, which does, indeed, make him stand apart from his contemporaries and makes him appear, in many ways, as a proto-romantic artist, standing aside from society, critical of it, haunted by inner demons which he was only able to express in his drawings, with Hayley as a malevolent Svengali, encouraging him to become something which he was not really equipped to be: a painter of literature and of the imagination, rather than a painter of what he really excelled at, the surface sheen of materials, the outward texture of life, with a smooth and buttery pigment, which flattered and enriched the lives of his female sitters.

Charles Saumarez Smith
Director, National Portrait Gallery


1. William Hayley, The Life of George Romney, Esq., Chichester, 1809, p.96.

2. Rev. John Romney, Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Romney, London, 1830, p.192.

3. For the circumstances of building the library at Eartham, see Mary Webster, 'Poet Patron of the 18th Century: William Hayley and George Romney', Country Life, January 29, 1981, pp.266-7. For this reference and other advice, I am grateful to Jacob Simon.

4. Hayley, p.322.

5. W.T. Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England 1700-99, London, 1928, II, p.312.

6. Memoirs of Richard Cumberland written by himself, London, 1806, p.464.

7. Romney, p.139.

8. Morchard Bishop, Blake's Hayley, London, 1951, pp.53-4.

9. Hayley, p.79.

10. Transcript of letter offered for sale in Artists' Files, NPG.