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George Romney
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
near Dalton-in-Furness, England
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Kendal, England
One of England’s leading portrait painters of the late 18th century, George Romney was a very fashionable painter who produced some 2,000 paintings during his career. Seen as a rival to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and later Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), the demand for Romney’s portraits diverted him from his desired career, that of a history painter. Romney was born at Beckside, a small estate adjoining Dalton-in-Furness in Lancastershire. His father was a cabinet-maker, who was apparently prosperous, owning some property as well as a small library. Romney was sent to a boarding school at age seven, but after three years his father had built a house at nearby Barrow-in-Furness and called his son back to work in the furniture business. With a talent for drawing, at age twenty Romney was apprenticed to Christopher Steele (1733-1768), a portrait painter in Kendal, Cumbria. In 1756 Romney married Mary Abott (1725-1823), then three months pregnant, the daughter of Steele’s landlady. In 1757 Romney’s apprenticeship ended, two years into his contracted four years, with Steele moving to Ireland. Romney set himself up in Kendal as a portrait painter to support his wife and new son John (1757-1832), working also in Lancaster. He developed a good reputation in portraiture, and painted a few surviving history paintings as well. In 1762 Romney held a lottery in Kendal, offering twenty of his paintings (including copies of Old Masters). He raised £100, which he split with his wife. Leaving her in Kendal, Romney went to London, hoping to achieve fame and fortune. Success came slowly. The Society of Arts awarded him the second-place prize for history painting for his work “The Death of General Wolfe” (now lost), exhibited at its 1763 exhibition, only to rescind the award by vote of Society members, perhaps due to the intervention of Reynolds. Romney was given a consolation award of 25 guineas. After a 1764 trip to Paris, Romney had greater success at the Society’s 1765 exhibition, receiving the second prize for a history painting. Nevertheless, he was forced to travel back to Kendal and Lancaster in 1765 and 1767 to find commissions. Romney achieved greater success in the late 1760s in portraiture as well as two paintings of allegorical figures from John Milton’s (1608-1674) poetry exhibited in 1770. He began to commission prints after his paintings, with four mezzotints published from 1770 to 1772. (Through 1806, 90 mezzotints and 25 other prints were published after his designs.) Then just as his career seemed to be established, he went off to Rome in 1773. He stayed in Rome for about a year and a half, became acquainted with the group of English artists working there (particularly Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) and his circle), and studied antique sculpture and the works of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520). One his return journey through Venice he studied works by Titian (ca. 1488-1576). After his return to London in July 1775, Romney rented the former studio of the portrait painter Francis Cotes (1726-1770) in the newly-fashionable Cavendish Square. He received several commissions from aristocrats and produced memorable paintings, most notable the full-length portrait of Granville Leveson-Gower (1721-1803), 2nd Lord Gower and later 1st Marquess of Stafford, wearing his robes of the Order of the Garter (1776-77, private collection) and another of his five youngest children, “The Leveson-Gower Children” (1777, Kendal: Abbot Hall Art Gallery), considered one of his best works. Romney quickly became a very busy painter. He kept a list of his sitters, and from 1776 through 1793 recorded hundreds of sittings each year, 829 in 1788, with each portrait requiring four or more sittings. Despite his prominence, Romney was never elected to the Royal Academy of Arts. Romney still had designs on history paintings and used numerous models, most notably Emma Hart (1765-1815), the mistress of Romney’s friend Charles Greville (1749-1809), who sent her to sit for Romney in 1782. He painted her in allegorical and literary roles, producing some of his best-known paintings. After four years Greville sent her to his uncle Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803), then in Naples, whom she married in 1791. The new Lady Hamilton last sat for Romney on her wedding day. Producing a painting of a scene from William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) “The Tempest” (destroyed) for John Boydell’s (1719-1804) “Shakespeare Gallery” project (a display of numerous paintings by several artists, to be published as engravings with a new edition of Shakespeare’s plays) occupied Romney from around 1788 until it was displayed in 1790, receiving severe criticism. From 1790 Romney’s portrait practice diminished and his health began to fail. From around 1796 he focused on building a new house in Hampstead and moved there before it was finished, with art works stored in an arcade insufficiently protected from weather and theft. After suffering strokes he became unable to paint, and moved back with his wife in Kendal in 1799. He died in Kendal in 1802. (TNB 7/2015) Selected bibliography: Kidson, Alex: George Romney, 1734-1802. Exhibition catalogue, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Kidson, Alex, ed. Those Delightful Regions of Imagination: Essays on George Romney. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Yale Center for British Art, 2002