In The Pleasures of the Imagination (1997), his study of English culture in the 18th century, John Brewer made a vital point when he argued that, although we might look back on the culture of the Georgians and see an enviable “order, stability and decorum,” the Georgians themselves considered it “modern, not traditional,” proof “that their society and way of life [were] changing.” And he concluded that what most characterized this admirable culture was not “respectability or elegance” but “dynamism, variety and exuberance.”
To immerse oneself in this three-volume catalogue is to see the force of Brewer’s point, for no painter captures the “dynamism, variety and exuberance” of his Georgian subjects better than George Romney (1734-1802), who, together with Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, was one of 18th-century England’s greatest painters.
Alex Kidson’s catalogue has many virtues: It corrects erroneous, and reveals hitherto unknown, attributions; it chronicles how commissions were carried out; and it meticulously trawls account books, ledgers, sketchbooks, newspaper reports, reviews, and the writings of Romney’s contemporaries to supply the contemporary background for an oeuvre that spans nearly 2,000 portraits. But it also shows how Romney proved Brewer’s point by bringing an altogether new inventiveness and élan to portraiture. As Kidson has written in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “Romney was . . . an artist who, under the cover of his professional image, experimented, developed, and reinvented himself continuously, and who in retrospect appears by temperament one of the first great modernists in British art.”
After the art dealer Joseph Duveen resuscitated Romney’s reputation in the early 20th century sufficiently to make him appealing to deep-pocketed collectors, his reputation languished, and it has only been Kidson’s sedulous, exacting work that has restored the painter to his proper place as the “bridging figure between the classicism of Reynolds and the brilliant informality of [Thomas] Lawrence.”
The autodidact son of a Lancashire joiner, Romney chose to become an artist after reading Shakespeare and Milton, the grandeur of whose work would make an abiding impression on him. Indeed, one early augury of the portraits to come was Romney’s striking portrayal of Lear stripping off his clothes on the heath—an apt theme for a portraitist keen on making portraiture truly revelatory. Although taught by a painter from Kendal named Christopher Steele—who bequeathed to his apprentice a delight in bold, dramatic color—Romney remained aloof from other artists. After working briefly with Steele in York, he returned to Kendal to launch his own career.
Wedding his landlady’s daughter after she nursed him back to health from a fever, and bore him a son, Romney would leave his wife and children behind when he set off for London. (Apparently, he had been told by Reynolds that “marriage spoilt an artist.”) His own absentee marriage notwithstanding, Romney always portrayed the marriages of his sitters with insightful sympathy. Still, to beguile the guilt he felt for living apart from his family, Romney painted incessantly, conducting seven 90-minute sittings per day and plunging into portraits without any preliminary sketching. Maintaining this manic schedule throughout the 1770s, ’80s, and ’90s made him the most fashionable painter in London, where he lived, for many years, in Cavendish Square; but it also wrecked his health. Leaving London, he returned to Kendal a broken man, though his wife took back the prodigal and nursed him for the last three years of his life. That his son (who wrote his biography) had nothing but praise for his father shows that Romney, however absentee, was not unloved.
Like all proper artists, Romney was continually dissatisfied with his art. His friend and fellow artist John Flaxman recognized that the painter’s “heart and soul were engaged in the pursuit of historical and ideal painting.” When Romney traveled to revolutionary France and saw the variety of historical themes that Jacques-Louis David had been commissioned to paint, his heart sank: This was the sort of grand, visionary painting that he had wished to produce himself. Nevertheless, if the portraits gathered here show Romney’s yearning to transcend the limits of portraiture, they also show that it was only within those limits that the artist in him shone.
Indeed, it is his very impatience with conventional portraiture that gives Romney’s best portraits their distinction. In his great portrait of Warren Hastings, for example, we see the onetime governor-general of Bengal in 1795, seven years after he was impeached in the House of Lords and tried by Edmund Burke and his Whig friends in the House of Commons. Of course, Hastings was acquitted on all counts, though he left his trial a ruined man: The £80,000 he had brought back with him from India—a tidy sum in Georgian England—had vanished in court costs. All he had left by the time Romney painted him was his disillusionment, which made this once-redoubtable grandee not so much bitter as baffled that he should ever have imagined the world’s prizes worth pursuing.
Then there is Romney’s pastel portrait of William Cowper, which shows the poet gazing away from the artist at something beyond the canvas—proof that he, like Romney, was preoccupied with yearnings that the surface of life, no matter how enticing, could never satisfy. What gives this study in desolation added poignancy is Cowper’s conviction that he was irredeemably damned: In what amounts to an anti-portrait, his coat blends indistinguishably with the pastel’s background, and his shirt and nightcap do little but isolate his near-disembodied head, with its great wondering eyes and disconsolate, quizzical lips. If Romney’s Warren Hastings shows a public man come to grief, his William Cowper shows a fellow artist who has never known anything but grief—for Romney, a sympathetic soul.
Another example of this ability to defy the conventions of portraiture can be seen in what Alex Kidson rightly regards as “one of the greatest self-portraits of the 18th century,” now in the National Portrait Gallery. In this riveting aperçu, Romney leaves everything unfinished but the sullen, brooding gaze he turns to the viewer, as much an aesthetic gauntlet as a cri de coeur. Here is the artist weary of the “shackles” of portraiture, but also the proud, unhappy man contemptuous of the fashionable world on which so much of his livelihood depended.
Nevertheless, to look at these portraits is to see how the artist in Romney sought to make portraiture serve his art. His wonderful depiction of Lady Louisa Lennox, for example, captures not only a fascinating individual—a strong, intelligent, subtle woman of complex beauty—but an entire social order, founded on hierarchical rank and subordination, but also on a deep attachment to the English countryside. The wife of Lord George Henry Lennox, who had served in the Seven Years’ War and later became a member of Parliament for the family borough of Chichester, Lady Louisa is shown dressed in riding attire sitting with a spaniel on her lap, completely at one with her rural setting. Here are aristocratic beauty and grace removed from their usual opulent settings, but also a certain simplicity, even sweetness.
William Cobbett might have regarded the nobility as “these mean, these cruel, these cowardly, these carrion, these dastardly reptiles.” But Romney, putting them before his viewers in a favorable though never sycophantic light, humanizes them.
Those who maintain that women in Georgian England were marginalized victims, cowering under their fathers and husbands, must come away from Romney’s art impressed by how well he bundles away this patriarchal tyranny: None of the wives and daughters here have the least look of victimhood about them. The marital portraits—whether of Mr. and Mrs. William Lindow or Sir Christopher and Lady Elizabeth Sykes—exhibit bonds of affection and esteem. In the charming “promenade” portrait of the Sykeses, for instance, it is Lady Elizabeth who leads the way, not her “stiff and business-like husband,” as Kidson puts it, who follows his lady’s lead with grateful docility.
Another myth exploded here is that 18th-century women were overwhelmed not only by unwanted pregnancies but unwanted children as well. Page after page of these volumes confute that claim by showing how philoprogenitive the mothers were who sat for Romney with their children. If one of the ways that Georgian portrait painters endeared themselves to their upper-class clients was to enter into what truly mattered to them—whether their families or their estates—Romney obliged his sitters by fully entering into their delight in their children. And in gratifying his clients’ demand for portraits of children, Romney transformed not only the mother-and-child portrait but the family portrait as well.
Kidson’s catalogue includes all of the portraits that Romney painted of his favorite sitter, Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, the seductively beautiful daughter of an illiterate blacksmith who would go on to enrapture Admiral Nelson. Emma was introduced to Romney’s studio in 1782 when she was 16 and he was 47: Over the next four years, she had nearly 200 sittings with Romney and appears in 28 portraits. For Romney, as Kidson writes, Emma “rekindled the possibilities of portraiture itself.” Here we see Emma as Circe, Mirth, Nature, Calypso, Absence, a Sybil, a Vestal, St. Cecilia, “Spinstress,” and a Bacchante.
Unfortunately, after Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, and the government refused to give her a pension, Emma ran up debts she couldn’t repay and died of cirrhosis in a Calais boarding house—a melancholy end to a most improbable life, though it would have confirmed Romney’s sense of the transience of human beauty, which he captured so splendidly in his incomparable portraits.
Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard