Thursday, 17 November 2011

Artists Obsessions.

For this post I decided to explore artists obsessions with their muses starting with the eighteenth century portrait painter George Romney.

Self Portrait  painted in 1784 when Romney was fifty.
I thought this would be a short post but having done some reading it looks like being a long one. So first a bit of background on Romney who was born at Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, in 1734.
He was one of eleven children, his father was a man of many occupations farmer, builder, cabinet-maker, and dealer and not very prosperous in any of them. By the time Romney was eleven years old he was helping his father in the workshop, during this time he drew portraits of the other workmen and people. He also became a skilled woodworker and was able to make violins (which he played throughout his life).  When he was twenty he made the acquaintance of a vagabond artist named Christopher Steele, who journeyed from place to place producing portraits, I wonder if there is still an opening for that sort of Itinerant!
In 1755 Romney became his pupil and was taken with him on his travels. In the following year Romney fell ill with a fever and was nursed by his landlady's daughter, a domestic servant named Mary Abbott, and being a romantic youth Romney married this girl in the first burst of his gratitude. Steele meanwhile had settled at York, and summoned Romney to join him there as soon as he was well enough, and since he was not earning enough to keep a wife, Mrs. Romney had to go back to service when her husband rejoined the man he was apprenticed to.
There was little that Steele, a mediocre artist and a loose liver, could teach Romney, and their association was more profitable to Steel than to him. After a year or two in bondage at York, Romney managed to purchase his freedom, and he then made a home for his wife at Kendal. With this town as his headquarters, he rambled about the Lake Country painting heads at two guineas each and small full-lengths at six guineas, till in 1762 he had at last managed to save a hundred pounds.
Romney was now twenty-eight, and he felt that if ever he was to make his fortune by his art he must seek it in London. So giving £70 to his wife, with the remaining £30 he came to the capital, where he at once competed for a prize offered by the Society of Arts for an historical picture on " The Death of Wolfe."

Study for The Death of General Wolfe 1763
Romney was at first awarded a prize of fifty guineas for his version of this theme, but later the judges reversed their verdict and awarded the fifty guineas to John Hamilton Mortimer, a young friend of Joshua Reynolds, and gave Romney only a consolation prize of 25 guineas though the painting was immediately sold for a further twenty-five guineas to a banker who gave it to the governor of Bengal, the painting was sent out to India and is now lost. Romney, not unnaturally, believed this reversal of the first judgment to be the result of favouritism, and to the end of his life he thought that it had been brought about by Reynolds, who had been actuated by fear of a rival. In 1766 Romney again gained a premium for his " Death of King Edward " from the Society of Arts, to which he was now admitted a member, and from then on he exhibited regularly at the Society's exhibitions, but always held aloof from the Academy. In 1767 he paid a visit to his wife and two daughters at Kendal, and returning alone to London soon established himself in public favour, and in the early 'seventies he was making over a thousand a year by his profession. He thought the time had now come when he should visit Italy, and in March 1773 he set off for that country in the company of fellow artist, Ozias Humphrey (1742-1810), who afterwards became a famous miniature-painter. In Rome, Romney separated himself from his colleague and traveller and led a hermit's life, shunning the society of his compatriots, and giving his whole time to work and study. In 1775 he made his way back to England via Venice and Parma, studying with advantage the work of Correggio in the latter city, and reaching London in the month of July. Greatly improved now in his colouring and confident in his increased knowledge and power, Romney boldly took the house and studio of Francis Cotes, R.A., who had been one of the leaders of the older portrait painters, at 32 Cavendish Square, and there seriously entered into competition with Reynolds. Gainsborough, did not come to London till 1779, so that Romney, though younger was the first formidable rival that Reynolds had to endure. Charging fifteen guineas for a head life-size, Romney soon found himself surrounded by sitters, and Reynolds was alarmed at the way in which his practice for a time was diminished by the painter to whom he contemptuously referred as " the man in Cavendish Square." Later Romney had so many commissions that he was able to put up his prices to eighty guineas for the full-length portraits. When Reynolds died he left a fortune of £80,000 earned by his brush, and though Romney was not successful to this extent he made a good living, his income in the year 1785 being £3635.
But Romney was never a mere money-grubber, and when at the age of forty-eight he first met his most famous sitter, the dazzlingly beautiful Emma Lyon, who changed her name to Emma Hart. She is of cause better known to history as Lady Hamilton, he was so fascinated by her extraordinary personality, that time after time he refused all kinds of wealthy sitters in order that he might continue uninterruptedly to paint the lovely Emma. In 1782 the future Lady Hamilton was a mere girl of twenty or twenty-one, living under the protection of Charles Greville, who four years later—when he was in money difficulties—heartlessly handed her over to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who treated her more kindly and honourably. For five years Romney painted this fascinating Woman continually in a variety of characters.

Emma Hart as Ariadne 1785

Emma Hart as the Spinner

Emma Hamilton as the Magdalen.
 Though gossip soon busied itself making scandal out of their relations, there is no evidence that the painter's affection for her was anything but platonic. Of his many paintings of her one of the most charming is this one.

Lady Hamilton " in the National Portrait Gallery.
George Romney’s portraits have a very feminine quality which gives an extraordinary pathos, to his paintings of frail women. There is a paternal tenderness rather than the passion of a lover in his paintings of Emma Hamilton.

Emma Hamilton
 Emma Lyon at one time worked at the Drury Lane theatre in Covent Garden, as maid to various actresses, among them Mary Robinson  another famous beauty known as " Perdita."

“Perdita” Mary Robinson
 Romney's beautiful portrait of Mary Robinson was done while this gifted actress was under the protection of the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV. But that royal rascal soon tired of her, and at the age of twenty-four she had already been abandoned by " the first gentleman in Europe." When he sent her away the Prince gave her a bond for £20,000 ; but he never paid it, and " Perdita " Robinson died in 1800, poor and paralysed.

Nobody has yet discovered who was the original of Romney's characteristically charming " The Parson's Daughter," but we may imagine that this beautiful Woman, with a gentle melancholy behind her smile, was also one of the frail sisterhood to which both Lady Hamilton and Mrs. Robinson belonged.

The Parsons Daughter
 Though he never brought his wife and family to London  he supported them in comfort, and when after years of hard work in London his health broke down, he went back to his wife at Kendal. She received him without reproaches, and under her affectionate care the tired, worn-out genius " sank gently into second childhood and the grave." He died at Kendal on November 15, 1802.


Susan said...

Fascinating! And I love your style of writing - conversational, humorous and enlightening! Glad I found this post. I wonder if George Romney, the Republican tring to get the nomination for the presidency in the US, is related to the artist George Romney?

Journeyman said...

I’m afraid I don’t know very much about the current George Romney Susan but I believe he is somehow related to the artist. A reference to Mitt Romney being related came up when I was researching for this.


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