George Romney - Encyclopedia

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GEORGE ROMNEY (1734-1802), English historical and portrait painter, was born at Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, on the 26th of December 1734. His father was a builder and cabinet-maker of the place, and the son, having manifested a turn for mechanics, was instructed in the latter craft, showing considerable dexterity with his fingers, executing carvings of figures in wood, and constructing a violin, which he spent much time in playing. He was also busy with his pencil; and some of his sketches of the neighbouring rustics having attracted attention, his father was at length induced to apprentice the boy, at the age of nineteen, to an itinerant painter of portraits and domestic subjects named Steele, an artist who had studied in Paris under Vanloo; but the erratic habits of his instructor prevented Romney from making great progress in his art. In 1756 he impulsively married a young woman who had nursed him through a fever, and started as a portrait painter on his own account, travelling through the northern counties, executing likenesses at a couple of guineas, and producing a series of some twenty figure compositions, which were exhibited in Kendal, and afterwards disposed of by means of a lottery.

Having, at the age of twenty-seven, saved about boo, he left a portion of the sum with his wife and family, and started to seek his fortune in London, never returning, except for brief visits, till he came, a broken-down and aged man, to die. Credit must, however, be given him for recognizing to some extent his family responsibilities. He did not allow his wife and children to fall into poverty, and he gave help to his brothers, who seem to have resembled him in a kind of shiftlessness of temperament. In London he rapidly rose into popular favour. His "Death of General Wolfe" was judged worthy of the second prize at the Society of Arts, but a word from Reynolds in praise of Mortimer's "Edward the Confessor" led to the premium being awarded to that painter, while Romney had to content himself with a donation of X50, an incident which led to the subsequent coldness between him and the president which prevented him from exhibiting at the Academy or presenting himself for its honours.

In 1764 he paid a brief visit to Paris, where he was befriended by Joseph Vernet; and his portrait of Sir Joseph Yates, painted on his return, bears distinct traces of his study of the works of Rubens then in the Luxembourg Gallery. In 1766 he became a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists, and three years later he seems to have studied in their schools.

Soon he was in the full tide of prosperity. He removed to Great Newport Street, near the residence of Sir Joshua, whose fame in portraiture he began to rival in such works as "Sir George and Lady Warren" and "Mrs Yates as the Tragic Muse"; and his professional income rose to £1 200 a year. But this marked increase in his popularity had the effect of enlarging his ambitions, and he became anxious to attempt subjects which required more experience than he possessed. Realizing as he did the need for more thorough knowledge, he was seized with a longing to study in Italy; and in the beginning of 1773 he started for Rome in company with Ozias Humphrey, the miniature painter. On his arrival he separated himself from his fellow-traveller and his countrymen, and devoted himself to solitary study, raising a scaffold to examine the paintings in the Vatican, and giving much time to work from the undraped model, of which his painting of a "Wood Nymph" was a fine and graceful result. At Parma he concentrated himself upon the productions of Correggio, which fascinated him and greatly influenced his practice.

In 1775 Romney returned to London, establishing himself in Cavendish Square, and resuming his extensive and lucrative employment as a portrait painter, which in 1785, according to the estimate of his pupil Robinson, yielded him an income of over £3600. The admiration of the town was divided between him and Reynolds. "There are two factions in art," said Lord Thurlow, "and I am of the Romney faction" - and the remark, and the rivalry which it implied, caused much annoyance to Sir Joshua, who was accustomed to refer contemptuously to the younger painter as "the man in Cavendish Square." Atter his return from Italy Romney formed two friendships which powerfully influenced his life. He became acquainted with Hayley, his future biographer, then in the zenith of his little-merited popularity as a poet. His influence on the painter seems to have been far from salutary. Weak himself, he flattered the weaknesses of Romney, encouraged his excessive and morbid sensibility, disturbed him with amateurish fancies and suggestions, and tempted him to expend on slight rapid sketches, and ill-considered, seldom-completed paintings of ideal and poetical subjects, talents which would have found fitter exercise in the steady pursuit of portraiture. About 1783 Romney was introduced to Emma Hart, afterwards celebrated as Lady Hamilton, and she became the model from whom he worked incessantly. Her bewitching face smiles from numerous canvases; he painted her as a Magdalene and as a Joan of Arc, as a Circe, a Bacchante, a Cassandra; and he has himself confessed that she was the inspirer of what was most beautiful in his art. But her fascinations seem to have been too much for the more than middle-aged painter, and they had their own share in aggravating that nervous restlessness and instability, inherent in his nature, which finally ruined both health and mind.

In 1786 Alderman Boydell started his great scheme of the Shakespeare Gallery, apparently at the suggestion of Romney. The painter at least entered heartily into the plan, and contributed his scene from the Tempest, and his "Infant Shakespeare attended by the Passions," the latter characterized by the Redgraves as one of the best of his subject pictures. Gradually he began to withdraw from portrait painting, to limit the hours devoted to sitters, and to turn his thoughts to mighty schemes of the ideal subjects which he would execute. Already, in 1792, he had painted "Milton and his Daughters," which was followed by "Newton making Experiments with the Prism." He was to paint the Seven Ages, Visions of Adam with the Angel, "six other subjects from Milton - three where Satan is the hero, and three from Adam and Eve, - perhaps six of each." Having planned and erected a large studio in Hamsptead, he removed thither in 1797, with the fine collection of casts from the antique which his friend Flaxman had gathered for him in Italy. But his health was now irremediably shattered, and the man was near his end. In the summer of 1799, suffering from great weakness of body and the profoundest depression of mind, he returned to the north, to Kendal, where his deserted but faithful and long-suffering wife received and tended him. He died on the 15th of November 1802. The art of Romney, especially his figure subjects, suffered greatly from the waywardness and instability of the painter's disposition, from his want of fixed purpose and sustained energy. He lacked the steadfast perseverance needful to the accomplishment of a great picture. Afflicted as he was throughout his life by an unreasonable timidity and by a self-consciousness which led him at one moment into assertive affectations and at another into exaggerated humility, he avoided the society of his brother artists and lost many opportunities of receiving that frank professional criticism which might have stimulated him to more serious effort. In unwholesome surroundings he steadily deteriorated. His imagination flashed and flickered fitfully upon him, like April sunshine. His fancy would be captivated by a subject, which was presently embodied in a sketch, but the toil of elaborating it into the finished completeness of a painting too frequently overtaxed his powers; he became embarrassed by technical difficulties which, through defective early training, he was unable to surmount, and the half-covered canvas would be turned to the wall. Even in the pictures he finished he was unable to keep to any consistent level of achievement. He produced some fine things, very personal in style and very skilful in handling; but much that he did seems too tentative and too plainly deficient in shrewdness of insight to deserve serious consideration. His colour, too, was often unpleasant, hot and monotonous, and his composition was apt to be stilted and artificial. It is in the best of his portraits that we feel the painter's real ability. These, especially his female portraits, are full of grace, charm, distinction, and sweetness. When we examine his heads of Cowper and Wilkes, his delicate and dignified full-length of William Beckford, his "Parson's Daughter" in the National Gallery, and his group of the Duchess of Gordon and her Son, we cannot deny his claim to rank as one of the notable portrait painters of 18th-century England.

See the Memoirs by William Hayley (1809) and by the artist's son, the Rev. John Romney (1830); Cunningham's Lives of the Painters; George Romney and his Art, by Hilda Gamlin (1894). In the fully illustrated George Romney, by Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower (1904), pictures, mainly studies, are reproduced not elsewhere to be found. But the great work upon the artist is Romney, by Humphry Ward and W. Roberts (1904), a monograph of real importance, containing 70 illustrations, a biographical and critical essay, and a catalogue raisonne of the painter's works. Arthur B. Chamberlain's Romney (1910) has 73 plates.

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