Mirroring the gentry
wheels of art historical justice may grind slowly, but often come up
with unexpected corrections of what has been the “canon”, or the accepted
Alex Kidson of Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery has performed like Sherlock
Holmes, searching in obscure photo archives and locating lost works
by Romney in remote attics.
writes* that Romney's career “coincided with the single most dynamic
period in the history of British art”.
was one of 10 brothers born to a furniture maker living in Dalton in
Furness. He received only a basic education, but his gift at portraiture
revealed itself at an early age.
The early portraits in this exhibition situate his subjects in elaborate settings to convey their status in society as property-owners, dressed in striking clothes and surrounded by their pets or other signs of their education and culture.
Role playing assumes many guises in his paintings of females as muses or mythological figures. When Romney dispenses with these trappings and focuses on his sitter’s personality he comes most into his own.
He doesn’t always flatter his subjects unduly. He makes up with dignity what they may lack in beauty. We are given a sense of presence - gravitas combined with immediacy - in his depictions of local gentry such as Mr and Mrs William Lindow and Mrs Joan Knatchbull.
As Kidson writes, Romney’s “interest or absorption in the physical beauty of his sitter – be it woman, young man or even child – was almost frighteningly direct, with the forms of the body exquisitely modelled and painted with palpable intensity”.
He loved painting the uninhibited Emma Hart, who posed for him in many guises, inspiring some of his most intimate and informally composed works. Emma Hart first sat for Romney in 1782. Emma soon left for Naples, where now married to Lord Hamilton, she became Nelson’s mistress.
By 1772 Romney could charge 40 guineas a whole-length likeness, giving him an income of around £1,200 a year which put him in the top class of earners of his day.
Romney’s patrons came from “all quarters of the political compass”. He became a supporter of the French Revolution of 1789 and was invited to dinner by Thomas Paine, the author of The Rights of Man in 1791.
Paine and Thomas Walker, the Manchester radical, sat to Romney for portraits which were engraved by another democrat, William Sharp. But, Kidson notes, while Romney’s house in London’s fashionable Cavendish Square was a safe haven for revolutionaries like Paine, Romney himself was never investigated for his republican sympathies.
Indeed, even while consorting with Paine, he applied to succeed Reynolds as Portrait Painter to the King!
By now Romney was anxious to make paintings of “the imagination” but he never realised his ambition was to become a “history painter”. The exhibition includes many drawings in chalk, and ink and wash which show these aspirations. Whether or not they display a major repressed talent is up for debate.
What is certain is that this is a unique chance to see the man who challenged Sir Joshua Reynolds for supremacy, adding a dynamic and intriguing dimension to create the powerful English portrait tradition in the second half of the 18th century.
The National Portrait Gallery’s own splendidly brooding Self Portrait and Kenwood’s Emma as the Spinstress and the Tate Gallery’s Emma Hart as Circe can be viewed in a fresh light alongside paintings from Australia, the U.S. and private collections.
George Romney is at the National Portrait Gallery until August 18. Admission £6/£4. www.npg.org.uk Recorded information 020 7312 2463.
It travels to Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, USA from 15 September –1 December 2002.
*The catalogue by Alex Kidson is published by the National Portrait Gallery at £40/£25 paperback. 256 pages with 216 illustrations.
Mrs William Lindow
of Emma Hart as Circe