George Romney: Master Portraitist

George Romney was born in a small town in the north of England in 1734. As a boy he worked as an assistant to his father, a cabinetmaker. He exhibited a gift for drawing from an early age and while in his teens took painting lessons from a local artist. When he was 21, he began an apprenticeship with Christopher Steele, a painter in the nearby town of Kendal.

Christopher Steele was a flamboyant and mercurial character whose extravagant dress, Continental manners and spendthrift habits had earned him the nickname "Count Steele." Although only a year older than his new student, he was an academically trained professional who had studied in Paris with Carle van Loo, one of the most distinguished masters of contemporary Europe. Less than two years after taking Romney on, the ever restless Steele moved on to Ireland; but he left Romney, now married and the father of a young son, with a solid enough grounding in the fundamentals of painting to make a decent living.

For the next five years Romney worked as an artist in Kendal. One portrait from this period, Girl with a Dog, Holding a Bonnet, with Cherries in her Apron, sold at Doyle on January 29, 2014 (lot 103), is an instructive example of the artist's early work.

In this charming picture of a well-dressed little girl, we can see the meticulous draftsmanship, controlled brushwork and polished surface that characterize the artist's style around 1761, shortly before he left Kendal to live in London. 

In March 1762, Romney, now 27, set out for the capital, hoping to establish himself in a larger arena. Although he left his wife and children behind, he remained on good terms with them, continuing to support them and making occasional short visits to see them for the next 37 years. 

Once in London, Romney met quickly with some modest success, winning prizes for his work at various art exhibitions and finding patrons for his portraits. In 1764 he had the means to make a short trip to Paris to study the old master paintings on view there. Following this, his reputation continued to grow and the number of his commissions increased to the point that by 1772 he had saved enough to make a 3-year trip to Italy, the dream of every artist of the time. In Italy he painted the portraits of expatriate English residents, assiduously studied collections of Roman, Renaissance and Baroque art, and even successfully prevailed on Pope Clement XIV to allow him to erect scaffolding in the Vatican stanze so that he could see Raphael's frescoes at close hand. When Romney returned to London in 1775 his career prospered. Now a gentleman home from the Grand Tour, he soon met a number of influential new patrons; by the early 1780s he had established himself as a leading society portraitist. 

In 1782 Romney met a young woman who would greatly inspire his imagination, the beautiful 17-year-old Emma Hart, who was to become his favorite model. In the following years he depicted this "divine lady" almost obsessively, both in her own character and as a bacchante, a sibyl, a muse, and various other guises, including Mary Magdalene, a nun, and Joan of Arc! These fanciful paintings were eagerly bought by well-heeled collectors; two were commissioned -- at great cost -- by the Prince of Wales. Emma Hart would later become famous as Lady Emma Hamilton, the great love of Admiral Horatio Nelson. 

As time went on, Romney's technique became looser and more relaxed, his brushstrokes more visible and expressive, his surfaces more textured. An example of a work in his mature style is his portrait of Miss Mary Perryn,  which Doyle will offer on May 24, 2017 (lot 65).

This handsome likeness of Miss Perryn finished shortly before her wedding in 1788 is a fine example of Romney's work at the height of his career. Since his record books from the late 1780s survive, we know that the lady sat for him nine times, from November 28, 1786 to March 3, 1788. Here the brushwork is lively and varied, the impasto almost sculptural, and the elegance of the pose reminiscent of the Italian paintings that the artist had admired on his trip to Italy. 

Romney now had a wide circle of distinguished patrons and friends, including the artists John Flaxman, Ozias Humphrey, and William Blake, and the writer William Hayley. In 1792 Romney visited Hayley's home in Eartham, Sussex, where he met and drew a portrait of the poet William Cowper, who memorialized their meeting with the following sonnet: 

Romney, expert infallibly to trace
On chart or canvas not the form alone
And semblance, but however faintly shown
The mind's impression, too, on every face
With strokes that time ought never to erase.
Thou hast so pencill'd mine, that though I own
The subject worthless, I have never known
The artist shining with superior grace.
But this I mark -- that symptoms none of woe
In thy incomparable work appear;
Well: I am satisfied it should be so;
Since, on maturer thought the cause is clear;
For in thy looks what sorrow couldst thou see
When I was Hayley's guest and sat to thee? 

Soon after this Romney's health began to fail. He continued to paint for a few more years before retiring in 1799 to live with his wife and son in Kendal, where he died in 1802. 

Romney was – along with Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough – one of the great portraitists of Georgian England. His vivid likenesses helped set a standard for British portraiture that was continued into the next century by John Hoppner, Thomas Lawrence and many fine Victorian artists.   

SVP/Acting Director, Paintings & Drawings
Old Master Paintings
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