Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Romney, George
ROMNEY, GEORGE (1734–1802), painter, born at Beckside, a house in the village of Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, on 15 Dec. 1734, was son of John Romney, a builder and cabinet-maker. The elder Romney (or Rumney, as he himself always wrote the name, the more familiar form being an innovation of the painter) was a substantial man in his modest way. He farmed a small freehold inherited from his father, a yeoman of Appleby, who had migrated to Dalton during the troubles of the civil war. The sturdy rectitude of his character had won for him the name of ‘Honest John Rumney,’ and he seems to have been a man of some ability, with a turn for mechanics. He also enjoyed some local fame as the author of various practical experiments in agriculture. His wife, Ann Simpson, of Sladebank in Cumberland, was a notable housewife and excellent mother to her large family of eleven children. The painter was her second son. Another son, Peter Romney [q. v.], is separately noticed. At a very early age George was sent to school at Dendron, about four miles from Dalton, where the master, the Rev. Mr. Fell, agreed to teach him the humanities for 5s. a quarter, while a certain Mr. Gardner received him as a boarder for 4l. 10s. a year. But so indifferent was his progress that even this modest outlay was voted a useless expense; and when the boy was eleven his father brought him home and turned him into his own workshop. He soon became useful to his father, much of whose mechanical skill he seems to have inherited. In particular he distinguished himself by the manufacture of fiddles, many of which he ornamented with elaborate carving. His passion for music first suggested these experiments, and a fiddle of his own make became a common present to his boyish companions. One such gift to a former schoolfellow named Greene inaugurated a lifelong friendship, of great value to Romney in later years. Greene became an attorney of repute in London, and Romney's chief adviser in all business matters. He audited the painter's confused accounts, and managed all his money transactions.
It seems evident that Romney's inclination for art developed very early. He is said to have amused his father's workmen by drawing their portraits. One of these workmen, Sam Knight by name, took in an illustrated monthly magazine, which he used to hand on to his master's son, who copied the engravings in pencil. Young Romney also made drawings from the prints in a copy of Leonardo's ‘Treatise on Painting.’ Some of the drawings thus made came under the notice of a relative, Mr. Lewthwaite of Millom, who, struck with their merit, strongly urged the elder Romney to train the boy as an artist. Richard Cumberland, in a biographical notice of Romney published in the ‘European Magazine,’ declares that his genius had no early stimulus beyond Knight's encouragement, and that his acquaintance with pictures was confined to the sign of the Red Lion at Dalton. According, however, to Hayley, one John Williams, an eccentric dilettante of the neighbourhood, greatly influenced the youthful artist, encouraging his aspirations and directing his early efforts. Through his persuasion, perhaps, or that of Mr. Lewthwaite, John Romney made up his mind to start his son on the novel career. An itinerant portrait-painter named Edward Steele (d. 1760?) [q. v.] happened at the time to be working in Kendal. To him George Romney was duly apprenticed, his indentures bearing the date 20 March 1755. Steele was not altogether the dauber he has been called, though his character made him anything but an ideal guardian of youth. He seems to have troubled himself little about his pupils, yet he managed to win their affections in spite of, or perhaps by, his foibles (see Romney, Memoirs of George Romney, p. 42). Romney used to complain that he was deprived of all opportunities of self-improvement by incessant studio drudgery, but his enforced application probably stood him in good stead in after years.
While Romney was at Kendal, Steele prevailed upon a young woman of some means, to whom he was giving lessons, to marry him at Gretna Green. Romney was his master's confidant and auxiliary in this affair, and the excitement told so much upon him that he fell into a fever. Throughout his illness he was nursed by one Mary Abbott, his landlady's daughter. She and her mother were poor but decent folks, perhaps of a lower social status than himself, as Mary is said to have been for some time a domestic servant. An attachment sprang up between nurse and patient, and they became engaged. Steele, after his adventurous marriage, had determined to try his fortune in York. He ordered his apprentice to join him there as soon as he was well enough; and Romney, distressed at the approaching separation from his betrothed, determined to make her his wife before leaving Kendal. They were accordingly married on 14 Oct. 1756. The step was imprudent enough to justify the anger expressed by his parents; but Romney assured them that it should prove an incentive to work and a safeguard against youthful follies. He set out immediately afterwards for York, and his wife seems to have returned to service. Romney, still in his apprenticeship, had of course no income, and, indeed, for some time received occasional help from his wife in the shape of half-guineas, sent under the seals of letters. While at York Steele painted a portrait of Sterne. According to a legend, reported by Cumberland but contradicted by Hayley, Sterne was so struck by the talent of Steele's assistant that he wished him to paint the picture, to the master's chagrin. After a stay of nearly a year at York, Steele and his pupil practised for a short time at Lancaster, and here Romney became anxious to bring their connection to an end. He proposed that a sum of 10l. he had lent his master should be taken as a consideration for the cancelling of his indentures. To this Steele agreed, not without a certain generosity; for on releasing his pupil he declared that he did so ‘in order not to stand in the way of one who, he was sure, would do wonders.’
On his emancipation Romney worked for a short time at Lancaster, but soon returned to Kendal, and started in practice on his own account, taking his younger brother Peter, a lad of sixteen, whose artistic bent seemed no less pronounced than his own, as his pupil and assistant. His first recorded work as an independent painter was a sign for the post-office in Kendal—a hand holding a letter. He soon attracted the attention of some of the local magnates, and began to paint portraits at modest prices. The Stricklands of Sizergh were among his earliest patrons. He painted the brothers Walter and Charles Strickland and their wives, and Walter Strickland allowed him free access to his collection of pictures, many of which he copied. Among his sitters at this period were also Jacob Morland of Capplethwaite, Colonel Wilson of Abbot Hall, and the Rev. Daniel and Mrs. Wilson. His prices were six guineas for a whole-length, and two for a three-quarter figure. But even this latter modest sum he had great difficulty in extracting from one ‘patron,’ Dr. Bateman, the headmaster of Sedbergh School.
In the intervals of portrait-painting Romney tried a curious experiment. While in York he had collected a series of prints after the Dutch masters. From these he made oil copies and pasticci, a selection from which, with two or three original subjects, he exhibited in the town-hall at Kendal, and then raffled for 10s. 6d. a ticket. The catalogue of the lottery enumerates twenty pieces. Among them were two scenes from ‘King Lear’ and one from ‘Tristram Shandy.’ The latter represented the arrival of Dr. Slop, a grotesque figure, perhaps reproduced by Romney from the supposed original of the character, the eccentric Dr. Burton of York.
The proceeds of the lottery, with other small savings of the painter and his wife, made up a sum of 100l. Romney, conscious of powers that demanded a better opportunity than the provinces afforded, became anxious to try his fortune in London. He had now two children, a son (afterwards the Rev. John Romney, his father's biographer) and a daughter two years old, who died at the age of three. He hesitated to embark them all in his doubtful enterprise, and his wife seems to have fully acquiesced in his decision that, until his prospects were more settled, she and the children should remain in the north. There is no reason to suppose that the lifelong separation which followed was premeditated on either side; and the strictures of Hayley and others on Romney for his ‘desertion’ of his family are largely discounted by the facts that neither wife nor son ever showed the least resentment or sense of injury, and that John Romney's ‘Life’ is, in the main, a spirited justification of his father's conduct. John Romney was devoted to his mother, and would hardly have condoned anything like ill-treatment of her. As he grew to manhood he seems to have divided his time between his parents. Mrs. Romney eventually made her home with her father-in-law at Dalton, and later at Kendal.
Romney arrived in London in 1762, having divided his little savings with his wife. His only friends in the capital were his two compatriots, Braithwaite of the Post Office, and Greene, the schoolfellow already mentioned. With Braithwaite's help he found a lodging in Dove Court, near the Mansion House, removing in the following year to the house of one Hautree, in Bearbinder's Lane. Here he set to work on the picture which was his first introduction to the world of art, ‘The Death of General Wolfe.’ With this he is said to have competed for the premium of the Society of Arts in 1763. The result is not quite clear. According to his own and his friends' account, he was in the first instance awarded the second prize of fifty guineas; but the judges afterwards revised their verdict, adjudging the prize of fifty guineas to John Hamilton Mortimer [q. v.] for his ‘Edward the Confessor seizing the Treasures of his Mother,’ and bestowing on Romney a consolation prize of twenty-five guineas. Reynolds, according to his friends' version of the episode, was a prime mover in the reversal of the first award, and to him Romney, rightly or wrongly, ascribed his disappointment. Thus, it is asserted, were sown the seeds of the scarcely veiled aversion that persisted between these two famous men through the rest of their lives. That the details of the story are questionable is shown by the circumstance that, in the official list of premiums given by the Society of Arts in 1763, no mention whatever was made of Romney among the prize-winners, and that Mortimer is credited with gaining the first prize of one hundred guineas with a picture of ‘St. Paul converting the Britons.’ There is, however, no doubt that immediately after the competition Romney's picture was bought by Rowland Stephenson the banker, and presented to Governor Henry Verelst [q. v.], by whom it was hung in the council-chamber at Calcutta. Romney, like every other painter of that time, had long desired to study the works of the great foreign masters; but his means were not yet equal to the expense of a journey to Italy. In 1764 he travelled to Paris, however, in company with his friend Greene. He made the acquaintance of Joseph Vernet, through whose good offices he gained admittance to the Orleans Gallery, where he spent most of his time. After a stay of six weeks he returned to London, and took rooms in Gray's Inn, near Greene. Here Braithwaite procured him a sitter in Sir Joseph Yates, one of the judges of the king's bench, who brought several other legal patrons in his train. Here, too, was painted a ‘Death of King Edmund,’ which, more fortunate than his first essay, was unanimously awarded the second premium of fifty guineas by the Society of Arts in 1765. The first prize of sixty guineas was given to Hugh Hamilton (Premiums of the Society of Arts, 1765).
In 1767 Romney paid a visit to his family. His brother Peter returned with him to London, to start as a painter. But Peter's talents were neutralised by a weak character, and in the sequel he went back to the north. Romney's next move was (in 1767) to Great Newport Street. There he formed a friendship with Richard Cumberland the dramatist, who greatly influenced his career. Cumberland sat for his portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery), and, although the painter was then only charging eight guineas for a three-quarter figure, gave him ten, as an encouragement to raise his prices. Cumberland induced Garrick to come and see the picture, and the great actor, in spite of his adhesion to the ‘Reynolds faction,’ promised to sit himself. The proposed portrait, however, was never painted. Cumberland was then a popular writer, and the inflated odes in which he sang his friend's genius no doubt did much to make Romney known.
The first picture to attract favourable notice in London was a family group painted for Mr. Leigh, a proctor in Doctors' Commons. This appeared in 1768, together with a fancy subject, described as ‘Sisters contemplating on Mortality’ (sic). In 1769 he exhibited another ‘Family Piece,’ portraits of Sir George Warren, his wife, and daughter; and in 1770 he transferred his allegiance from the Free Society of Artists to the Chartered Society, sending to the exhibition in Spring Gardens two female studies, ‘Mirth’ and ‘Melancholy,’ said to have been painted from Mrs. Jordan and Mrs. Yates. In 1771 he exhibited a ‘Mrs. Yates as the Tragic Muse,’ a portrait of Major Pearson of the East India Company's service, a ‘Lady and Child,’ and a ‘Beggar Man.’ In 1772 he contributed two portraits, one being that of his friend Ozias Humphry [q. v.], the miniature-painter. With these the brief tale of works exhibited during his lifetime ends. He never again sent anything to a public exhibition.
The long-projected journey to Italy had now become a possibility, and in the autumn of 1772 Romney made arrangements to travel to Rome with Ozias Humphry. His position was now assured. He was making an income of over 1,000l. a year, and had many influential patrons. An attack of fever delayed his departure from England for some months. In August 1772 Charles Greville, second son of the Earl of Warwick, sent him a letter of introduction to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803) [q. v.], then ambassador at Naples. Romney made no use of it, as his travels did not extend so far south; but here we have the first link in that connection with Lady Hamilton which was to leave such lasting traces on his art. He left England with Humphry on 20 March 1773, and, travelling in leisurely fashion through France, went by sea from Genoa to Leghorn, and so to Florence. He arrived in Rome on 18 June. Studious and retiring, Romney mixed little in the society of the Italian capital; but a letter of introduction from the Duke of Gloucester to the pope proved of service to him. He lodged in the Jesuits' College, and spent his time in copying the most famous pictures and in studying the great examples of antique sculpture. He was greatly impressed by the latter, and its influence upon his art is evident. His fine natural taste readily assimilated its mingled nobility and simplicity, and accepted them as counsels of perfection in art. He also found a good opportunity to study the nude, through the presence at that time of a beautiful professional model in Rome. She was the original of his ‘Wood Nymph,’ which became the property of Thomas Keate [q. v.], the surgeon. Another interesting work of this period was a copy, on the same scale as the original, of the lower part of Raphael's ‘Transfiguration,’ then the altar-piece of San Pietro in Montorio. To enable him to make this copy he was allowed to have a scaffold erected in the church, and worked at his task daily over the heads of the officiating clergy. The Duke of Richmond afterwards offered him 100l. for the copy; but this Romney refused as insufficient. It was hung in the entrance-hall of his house in Cavendish Square, and after his death was sold at the auction of his effects for six guineas. ‘An Assassin’ (the study of a Roman bravo) and a portrait of the dwarf Baiocco (a notorious street beggar) were further memorials of this visit. A more interesting portrait than these was one he painted at Venice on his way home of Edward Wortley-Montagu, Lady Mary's eccentric son, in Turkish costume, a work to which the painter, inspired by his surroundings, gave something of the depth and richness of Venetian colour.
Returning to London via Paris, after two years' absence, Romney found himself somewhat straitened for money. His erratic brother Peter had got into debt and difficulty at Cambridge, where he had set up as a portrait-painter, and Romney generously paid his debts and established him at Southport. This drain upon his means seems to have seriously embarrassed him for the moment, and even made him consider the possibility of leaving London and starting a provincial practice. He finally, however, decided on the bold step of taking the large house and studio, No. 32 Cavendish Square, vacant by the recent death of Francis Cotes, R.A. Here he installed himself at Christmas 1775. His natural misgivings were dispelled, after some weeks of anxiety, by a visit from the Duke of Richmond, who commissioned the artist to paint a three-quarter length of himself. The duke was the president of the Society of Arts. He brought a long array of fashionable sitters in his train, besides giving Romney numerous orders for replicas of his own portrait, and for portraits of various members of his family. In a comparatively short time Romney was dividing the patronage of the great world with Reynolds. ‘All the town,’ said Lord Thurlow, ‘is divided into two factions, the Reynolds and the Romney, and I am of the Romney faction.’ Thurlow sat to the artist some six years later for the famous portrait at Trentham, and amused himself during the sittings by discussing a cycle of illustrations to the legend of ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ which he wished Romney to undertake. To this end Thurlow himself made a translation of the legend from Virgil, with an elaborate commentary, reading it aloud as the painter worked. Romney made several cartoons in charcoal on the lines suggested, afterwards presented by his son to the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge and the Royal Institution at Liverpool.
Among the more notable pictures painted between 1775 and 1781 were portraits of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire—a work he was never able to finish, the great lady proving a most unpunctual sitter—and of the young Countess of Derby (Lady Betty Hamilton); the beautiful group of Lady Warwick and her children; the Duchess of Gordon and her son; Mrs. Hartley and her children; Mrs. Stables and her children; Mrs. Carwardine and child. The Hon. Louisa Cathcart, afterwards Lady Mansfield, sister of Gainsborough's famous ‘Mrs. Graham;’ Mrs. Davenport the actress; Charlotte, daughter of Lord Clive; Harriet Mellon, afterwards Duchess of St. Albans; the two pretty daughters of his friend Cumberland; the fair ‘Perdita’ Robinson; Mrs. Trimmer; Lady E. Spencer, afterwards Countess of Pembroke; the Misses Greville; Sir Hyde Parker; Bishop Porteous of Exeter; the famous Kitty Bannister—all sat for portraits during these years, to which also belong the beautiful romping group of the Stafford family, and the groups of the Clavering and the Beaufort children. Garrick proposed to sit, an idea which nearly cost the painter his life; for getting wet through in a futile attempt to study the great actor in his last appearance at Drury Lane (10 June 1776), he fell into a fever. He was cured by the good offices of Sir Richard Jebb [q. v.], who became his doctor from this time forth, but would never accept any fee beyond an occasional drawing.
Romney's biographers, his son more especially, have insisted strongly on the ill-will of Reynolds, and, making all allowances for partisan exaggerations, it seems evident that Sir Joshua's attitude towards his rival was marked by a hostility not unlike that he showed to Gainsborough. Romney seems never to have given any just cause of offence. He had, indeed, a sincere admiration, often generously expressed, for the president's gifts. Reynolds, on the other hand, had little sympathy with Romney, either as artist or man. No two personalities could have been more sharply opposed, and some at least of Sir Joshua's dislike may have been the distaste of a strong, equable nature for one essentially weak, ill-balanced, and over-emotional. No doubt he was also human enough to resent the brilliant success with which ‘the man in Cavendish Square’ had encountered him on his own ground. To this unfriendliness as much as to any other cause was due Romney's persistent refusal to send any of his works to the Royal Academy, although, on its foundation in 1768, he was strongly urged by his friend Meyer to contribute with a view to his election. No picture of Romney's was seen on the academy walls till 1871, sixty-nine years after his death, when he was represented by one of his most exquisite groups, ‘The Lady Russell and Child,’ painted in 1784. In his determination to hold aloof he was encouraged by William Hayley [q. v.], whose acquaintance he had made in 1772. The then popular author of ‘The Triumphs of Temper’ constituted himself Romney's laureate. Romney relied greatly on his companionship and advice, and for twenty-two years never failed to spend his annual holiday in the poetaster's home at Eartham in Sussex, where Flaxman, Cowper, Blake, and others were his fellow-guests at various times. Some of Romney's most graceful fancies were inspired by passages from Hayley's poems, among them the ‘Serena’ in South Kensington Museum and the famous ‘Sensibility’ in Lord Burton's collection.
No reasonable doubt of his continuous success in London could have long survived Romney's establishment in Cavendish Square, and considerations of prudence no longer excused his separation from his wife and son, yet he made no attempt to bring them south. There was apparently no estrangement between them. He visited his family at intervals, and contributed liberally to their maintenance. In later years his son was often a visitor in his house. It may therefore be inferred that Mrs. Romney, conscious of her own humble origin and defective education, was herself unwilling to share the burden of honours to which she was not born. For the old scandal, which sought to account for Romney's indifference to his wife by alleging a liaison with his beautiful model, Emma Hart (afterwards Lady Hamilton) [q. v.], no serious evidence exists. The painter did not see her until July 1782, when she was living under the protection of his friend Charles Greville, who brought her to Romney for her portrait. Greville, who kept her in the most jealous seclusion, would certainly have resented the slightest encroachment on his own claims, whereas his friendly correspondence with the artist clearly shows that he looked upon Romney's interest in his protégée as quasi-paternal. ‘I heard last week from Mrs. Hart,’ he writes in a letter of 1788, ‘she desired me to tell you that she designs to captivate you by her voice next spring, and that few things interest her more than the remembrance you and Mr. Hayley honour her with.’
After her marriage to Sir William Hamilton, Emma herself writes to Romney from Naples as ‘My dear sir, my friend, my more than father.’ Romney's admiration for the ‘divine lady,’ as he called her, verged, indeed, on infatuation, but it was probably platonic. Hayley was little less enthusiastic; the one celebrated her with his pen, the other with his brush. For several years Romney refused commissions and reduced the number of his sitters, in order to devote more time to that series of studies in which he has immortalised Lady Hamilton's loveliness. Besides many portraits and sketches of her in her own character, he painted her as ‘Circe,’ as both ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’ in ‘Shakespeare nursed by Tragedy and Comedy,’ as ‘Alope with her Child in the Woods,’ as ‘Cassandra,’ ‘Euphrosyne,’ ‘Joan of Arc,’ ‘Calypso,’ the ‘Magdalen,’ ‘The Spinstress’ (the famous picture in Lord Iveagh's collection), a ‘Bacchante,’ a ‘Sibyl,’ a ‘Saint,’ a ‘Nun,’ &c. The ‘Magdalen’ and the ‘Calypso’ were painted for the Prince of Wales, who paid 100l. each for them. The last portrait of her was a half-length, seated, with a miniature of Sir William Hamilton in her belt, painted just before her marriage. Between her first appearance in Cavendish Square in 1782 and her departure for Italy in 1785, after Greville had transferred her to the protection of his uncle, she was Romney's chief source of inspiration. The list of his other works is short. He painted, however, portraits of Lord Thurlow's two daughters at the harpsichord, of Lord Derby on horseback, of Gibbon (to whom Hayley had introduced him), of the second Lord Chatham the younger, Pitt, and Edmund Burke, as well as the Lady Russell and her child, and the picture known as ‘The Sempstress.’ From 1786 to 1790 was perhaps the most prolific period of his career. He was at the zenith of his prosperity, making an income of over 3,000l. a year; and the entries in his pocket-books record innumerable names of notable men and women. The archbishops of Canterbury, York, and Dublin, Richard Watson, bishop of Llandaff, John Wesley, the Duchess of Cumberland, Mrs. Billington, Mrs. Jordan (of whom he painted two pictures for the Duke of Clarence), Mrs. Fitzherbert, Lord Ellenborough, Lady Milner, the Duchess of Leeds, and Lady Betty Foster (afterwards Duchess of Devonshire) were among the more remarkable of his sitters. The notebooks, extending over a great many years, are still extant. They were sold at Christie's in 1894, and then passed into the possession of Mr. Humphry Ward. The brief entries consist merely of dates, names of sitters, and sums received on account or in full payment. Romney seems generally to have been paid half his money when he undertook a commission, and the balance on delivering the picture; but his accounts are not always intelligible. The highest price he ever received for a portrait was 120 guineas. His portrait of Caroline, viscountess Clifden, and her sister, Lady Elizabeth Spencer, was sold to a dealer at Willis's Rooms on 11 June 1896 for 10,500 guineas. In 1790 Romney paid another visit to Paris, the assiduous Hayley and the Rev. Thomas Carwardine going with him. They were received with great courtesy by the English ambassador and other persons of distinction, notably Madame de Genlis, then governess to the Duke of Orleans' children. Two years later, when Madame de Genlis came to London with Mlle. d'Orléans, and the mysterious ‘Pamela Sims’ (afterwards Lady Edward Fitzgerald), Romney, in graceful acknowledgment of his kind reception in Paris, began two portraits of Pamela, meaning to give Madame de Genlis the one she preferred. Both were, however, put aside unfinished. One was snapped up by Hayley, always a shrewd gleaner of unconsidered trifies in his friend's studio. Mr. H. L. Bischoffsheim is the present owner of one of the pair, a most piquant study of a dark-eyed girlish beauty.
Romney's chief undertakings in 1791 were his pictures for Boydell's ‘Shakespeare Gallery,’ an enterprise which secured his hearty co-operation. He indeed claimed, and no doubt justly, a considerable share in its inception, and made many happy suggestions as to the choice of subjects. He himself contributed three works—one illustrating ‘The Tempest,’ in which the Prospero was painted from Hayley, and two allegorical compositions, the ‘Shakespeare nursed by Tragedy and Comedy,’ already referred to, and ‘The Infant Shakespeare attended by the Passions.’ The coldness with which Reynolds at first treated the project may have been partly due to Romney's eager support of it. Side lights on the characters of the two painters are afforded by their respective dealings with the promoters. The practical Reynolds received 500l. before he touched his canvas of ‘Macbeth,’ and another 500l. on its completion, whereas Romney—dreamy, generous, and unbusinesslike—asked only six hundred guineas for his ‘Tempest,’ and received no payment for several years. The ‘Infant Shakespeare’ he presented to the gallery.
The Eartham visit of 1792 was made memorable by the presence of Cowper. The poet and the painter were mutually pleased with each other. There was, indeed, a strong affinity between them. Romney, during his visit, illustrated a passage in ‘The Task’ by a picture afterwards variously known as ‘Kate,’ as ‘'Twas when the Seas were roaring,’ and, from the type of the heroine, as ‘Lady Hamilton as Ariadne.’ He also made a drawing of the poet himself in crayon, ‘in his best hand, and with the most exact resemblance,’ says the poet in a letter to Lady Hesketh. Cowper repaid the compliment by 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 my looks what sorrow couldst thou see,
When I was Hayley's guest, and sat to thee?
A letter to his son, describing this visit, shows that Romney's health had been very feeble throughout the year, but he declares himself better for the change. He continued to work industriously. In 1793 he painted, among other pictures, a portrait of Henry Dundas for Dundee University, and portraits of the Margrave and the Margravine of Anspach (Lady E. Craven); in 1794, ‘Newton making Experiments with the Prism,’ and portraits of the Duke of Portland, the Earl of Euston, and his own son. The latter came to stay with him, and, distressed at the nervous and ailing state in which he found his father, carried him off for a short visit to the Isle of Wight. Flaxman returned from Rome later in the year, and took a lodging in London ‘in the neighbourhood of our dear Romney.’ One of the painter's most interesting pictures of 1795 is the group of Flaxman, with his pupil, Hayley's young son, beside him, modelling a bust of the poet, while Romney looks on. In the autumn was begun the large picture of Lady Egremont and her children as ‘Titania with Fairies,’ painted partly at Eartham and finished at Petworth.
As Romney's health failed, the morbidly sensitive side of his disposition began to assert itself more and more. He became gloomy and irritable, his fits of depression alternating with moods of exaltation in which he planned undertakings on a colossal scale. He seems to have projected a Milton gallery on the lines of Boydell's Shakespeare. This, however, he kept a secret from all but Hayley, hinting at it, however, in letters to his son. ‘I have made,’ he writes, ‘many grand designs; I have formed a system of original subjects, moral and my own, and I think one of the grandest that has ever been thought of, but nobody knows. Hence it is my view to wrap myself in retirement, and pursue these plans, as I begin to feel I cannot bear trouble of any kind.’ To Hayley he wrote: ‘I have ideas of them all, and I may say sketches; but, alas! I cannot give time for a year or two; and if my name was mentioned I should hear nothing but abuse, and that I cannot bear. Fear has always been my enemy; my nerves are too weak for supporting anything in public.’ The unhealthy susceptibility so manifest here foreshadowed the mental disease that was creeping upon him. Occupied by these grandiose visions, he determined to leave the house in Cavendish Square, which he declared to be too small for his purposes, and to build one of a suitable size. When John Romney came to London in 1796, he found his father intent on all sorts of extravagant plans: busy on drawings of his new dwelling, and negotiating with Sir James Graham for a piece of land on the Edgware Road on which to begin operations. It was with difficulty that his son induced him to give up an undertaking far beyond his means, and to content himself with the purchase of a house on Holly Bush Hill, Hampstead; it is now the Hampstead Constitutional Club. The lease of the house in Cavendish Square was made over to Mr. (afterwards Sir) Martin Archer Shee, and Romney began to alter and add to his new home. On the site of the stables he put up a gallery for pictures and sculpture, and enclosed half of the garden under a timber arcade for a riding-house. These costly freaks were a severe strain on his income, and caused great annoyance to his son, who ascribed them mainly to Hayley's influence. Change of scene and the autumn visit to Eartham seem to have somewhat revived Romney's energies. While at Eartham he painted the portrait group of himself and Hayley, with the two youths, Tom Hayley and William Meyer, son of the miniaturist. In October 1796 he made expeditions to Stonehenge and Wilton House with the Hayleys. He moved to Hampstead in 1797, but even there he found it difficult to accommodate the pictures and studies in every stage of incompleteness which had accumulated about him. They overflowed the house and lined the damp walls of the new arcade, where many were stolen and others destroyed by exposure to the weather. Flaxman, writing of a visit to the painter, says it grieved him ‘to see so noble a collection in a state so confused, so mangled.’
In the summer of 1798 Romney's malady gained ground. A tour in the north with his son failed to shake off his settled despondency. He returned to London complaining of failing sight, of dizziness, and of a numbness in his hands which made him unable to guide his brush. In his broken and melancholy condition his thoughts turned to the wife of his youth. Without speaking of his intention to any one, he set out for Kendal. Mary Romney, true to the attitude she had always maintained, received him not only without reproaches, but with the most sympathetic kindness, and nursed him devotedly during the remaining two years of his life. His son acted as his secretary and companion, and for a time his mind remained tolerably clear. Lady Hamilton returned to England in 1800, and Hayley wrote to his friend, describing an interview with her, and her affectionate inquiries for the old painter, to which Romney replied as follows: ‘The pleasure I should receive from the sight of the amiable Lady Hamilton would be as salutary as great, yet I fear, except I should enjoy more health and better spirits, I shall never be able to see London again. I feel every day greater need of care and attention, and here I experience them in the highest degree.’ To one last pleasure he looked forward eagerly, the return of his brother James, a colonel in the East India Company's service, whose start in life had been due to the painter's generosity. When, however, they met, Romney could make no sign of recognition. He gradually sank into a state of helpless imbecility, and died at Kendal on 15 Nov. 1802. He was buried in the churchyard of his native Dalton. The monument his son wished to raise to his memory in the parish church was excluded by the lay rector, and was afterwards put up in the church at Kendal. It bears this inscription: ‘To the memory of George Romney, Esquire, the celebrated painter, who died at Kendal, the 15 November, 1802, in the 68th year of his age, and was interred at Dalton, the place of his birth. So long as Genius and Talent shall be respected his fame will live.’
Weak and morbid as his character must in some respects have been, Romney had many amiable and endearing qualities. The retired life he led was singularly blameless. He was generous to his relatives and to struggling artists, and showed no rancour in those rivalries imposed upon him by success. His son declares he was never betrayed into bitter or ungenerous speech about any brother artist. Keenly alive to what he believed to be the persistent hostility of Reynolds, he shrank from, rather than resented, his great rival's dislike. With this one exception he seems to have had no enemies, and his friendships were warm and constant. His want of education may have had something to do with his distaste for society at large. He was unable to write English with any approach to correctness, or even to spell the most ordinary words; he was consequently very reluctant to write at all, but his natural refinement and intelligence atoned for these shortcomings, and made him, in his happier days, a pleasant and even a brilliant companion. The seclusion in which he lived was partly due, no doubt, to his absorption in his art and his constitutional shyness of disposition. That he was capable of inspiring strong affection is evident from the terms in which Cowper, Blake, Flaxman, and Cumberland wrote of him, to say nothing of the somewhat incoherent eulogies of Hayley. In No. 99 of the ‘Observer,’ Cumberland thus sketched his character under the name of Timanthes, Reynolds and West figuring in the same conceit as Parrhasius and Apelles: ‘This modest painter, though residing in the capital of Attica, lived in such retirement from society that even his person was scarce known to his competitors. Envy never drew a word from his lips to the disparagement of a contemporary, and emulation could hardly provoke his diffidence into a contest for fame which so many bolder rivals were prepared to dispute.’ After Romney's death, his fame underwent remarkable vicissitudes. In the sale at Christie's in April 1807 of the pictures and sketches left in his studio at Hampstead, extremely low prices were realised. Caleb Whitefoord, who was among the purchasers, bought the portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter for a guinea and a half. The reaction against the popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime persisted until about 1870, when, owing chiefly to the winter exhibitions at Burlington House, a higher opinion of his powers began to prevail. Once the tide had turned, it flowed with extraordinary force, until pictures which would have sold for a few pounds in the first half of the century brought in small fortunes to their owners, and their author took a place beside Gainsborough and Reynolds in the affections of the collector. And this was not a mere matter of fashion. Few painters have been more essentially artistic than Romney; all his better portraits embody a pictorial scheme. He was a good draughtsman, a sound painter, an agreeable colourist. He had an eye for woman's beauty, and could enhance it. His slightest sketches have a vivid consistency which is almost peculiar to themselves. His vision was so artistic that his work was complete at every stage. Even the empty canvas about his unfinished heads seems to form an indispensable part in a coherent work of art; and so, although he lacks the depth and intellectual energy of Reynolds, the keen sensibility, the adorable delicacy, and the delicious colour of Gainsborough, he wins his place in the little group of Englishmen who formed the only great school of painting of the eighteenth century.
The most interesting, and apparently the most characteristic, portrait of Romney is a head in the National Portrait Gallery, bought at the sale of Miss Romney's effects at Christie's in May 1894. It was painted in 1782. Romney also painted a portrait of himself and his father, which belongs to the Earl of Warwick.
Romney's habit of painting his pictures entirely with his own hand relieved him from the necessity of having a large staff of assistants and pupils. He trained several scholars, however, the best known of whom were James Lonsdale [q. v.] and Isaac Pocock [q. v.]
John Romney (1758–1832), the painter's only surviving child, was educated at Manchester grammar school, whence he proceeded to St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1778. He was elected a fellow on 15 March 1785, and senior fellow on 11 March 1806, taking holy orders and graduating B.A. in 1782, M.A. in 1785, and B.D. in 1792. He chiefly resided at St. John's College till 1801, filling many college offices. From 1788 to 1799 he was non-resident rector of Southery, Norfolk, and in 1804 became rector both of Thurgarton and Cockley Clay, Norfolk. Meanwhile his father, wishing to secure a home for his family near the Cumberland lakes, arranged with John about 1800 to purchase some land at Whitestock How, near Newton-in-Cartmel. There, after his father's death, John built from his own designs a substantial house, known as Whitestock Hall. This was his residence from the autumn of 1806, when he married. His mother, the painter's widow, removed at the same time to Whitestock Cottage, on the estate, where she died on 20 April 1823. In 1830 John published his elaborate memoir of his father, and he died at Whitestock Hall on 6 Feb. 1832, being buried in the neighbouring churchyard of Rusland. He had already presented some of his father's drawings to his old college (St. John's, Cambridge), to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and to the Liverpool Art Gallery. Other portions of his own and his father's property were sold by auction in 1834. By his wife, Jane Kennel of Kendal (1796–1861), whom he married at Colton on 21 Nov. 1806, he left three daughters and two sons; of the latter, George died unmarried in 1865, while John, who succeeded to Whitestock Hall, died in 1875, leaving ten children; his eldest son succeeded to the house. The Rev. John Romney's last surviving daughter, Miss Elizabeth Romney, who died at Whitestock in December 1893, ultimately acquired most of the paintings, drawings, and manuscripts which the painter's family retained after his death; the collection was sold at Christie's, May 1894.[Romney's Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Romney, 1830, were intended to supersede Hayley's Life of George Romney, 1809, and the account by Richard Cumberland in European Magazine, vol. xliii. June 1803. See also Cunningham's British Painters, ed. Heaton, vol. ii.; Some Account of George Romney (an anonymous fragemet in Lancashire Biographical History, vol. i.); Annals of Kendal, by Cornelius Nicholson, F.G.S.; Gamlin's Romney and his Art; Gower's Romney and Lawrence (Great Artist Series); Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers, ed. Armstrong; Redgrave's Dict.; Memoirs of Emma, Lady Hamilton, ed. W. H. Long; Gamlin's Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton; manuscripts in the collections of T. Humphry Ward, esq. and Alfred Morrison, esq.; Southey's Life of Cowper, iii. 77–84; Letters of William Cowper, ed. Benham.]