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'Mrs John Sargent', by George Romney (1734-1802)

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About the artwork

George Romney was a popular 18th century painter and a rival of the Royal Academician Joshua Reynolds. In his self-portrait from 1784, currently on show at the Walker, Romney portrayed himself with a moody and withdrawn expression, reflecting the peculiarity of his character. He was known as a prolific painter, quick in execution but notorious for leaving works unfinished and an introvert who avoided public exhibitions for fear of criticism.

Mrs John Sargent or Charlotte Bettesworth (1755-1841) was the daughter and heiress of Richard Bettesworth of Lavington Park, Sussex. She married John Sargent from Kent in 1778, the date that this portrait was made. The proximity of the date of the portrait to the wedding suggests that the work was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of the couple. The poet William Hayley was a neighbour of the Bettesworths in Sussex and had introduced the couple to each other. Hayley's letters and memoirs reveal that he amused himself by plotting the match. Hayley was also a close friend of George Romney who visited the poet in his house at Eartham at the time. Romney's associations with the literary personalities as well as with the wealthy families around Oxford Circus in London played an important role in him securing commissions.

Romney painted Charlotte Bettesworth aged 23 in a flattering and elegant manner. Her tilted face and slight angle of her body accompanied by the swirl of her arms convey grace as well as familiarity and informality. The pose Romney chose for this sitter was an unusual one, compared to the others in the exhibition. Mrs Sargent holds a porte crayon (a holder for chalk and charcoal). The porte crayon in her hand reveals an artistically inclined and cultured personality, while her overall expression, despite the immediacy of her gaze, seems one of melancholic intellectuality. It is particularly the treatment of her dress as well as the loose handling of her hands, the textures of the neck and her face that bring the sitter into life.

Despite the bulk of the white dress, an allusion to her wedding dress, the handling of the drapery accentuates the femininity of the sitter. The grace of the upper part of the sitter's body is in contrast to the heavy lower part of the body, which is reminiscent of an antique statue. Romney's travels in Italy and his study of classical sculpture, undertaken just before this portrait was painted, marked a new phase of his career in London with more sophisticated compositions than his early commissions.

Romney was born at Beckside near Dalton-in-Furness in Cumbria, but moved to London in 1762 where he quickly established himself and gained a reputation as a skilled portrait painter. Romney's father was a furniture maker and it was in his workshop that Romney learnt the basic principles of design. Romney's apprenticeship in the studio of the portraitist Christopher Steele did not last more than two years. After that time Romney pursued an independent career in Kendal and Lancaster, his first patrons being from the North West. Despite his move to London and especially during his first years there Romney sometimes returned to the North West to undertake commissions for portraits (such as those of 'Dr James Ainslie', the 'Reverent William Strickland and Peter Woodhouse'), which would finance his stay in the capital.

Between 1773-75 Romney travelled to Italy where he had the opportunity to explore his interest in history subjects and to draw from the works of masters such as Raphael and Michelangelo as well as classical sculpture. It was the contact with classical civilisation and culture and his association with the Neo-classical artist Henry Fuseli which strengthened Romney's interest in historical and literary subjects and led him to treat his drawings as an independent form of expression, rather than a preparatory process for paintings. The display of his cartoons from the Walker's collection included in the exhibition demonstrates the vigour of his drawing skills and his vision for a nobler and superior subject than portraiture.

The painting

Despite the vitality of the figure of Mrs Sargent, the relationship between the sitter and the landscape in the background appears a little unresolved. It is thus difficult to identify where the sitter is seated, although the top of a balcony and the edge of a wall can be discerned. The landscape lacks a gradual recession while its quick and loose treatment gives it the character of a study from nature rather than the appropriate setting for a finished oil composition. An interesting play between light and shade can be seen in the left part of the portrait where the shadow of the wall falls onto Mrs Sargent's neck, creating a contrast to her luminous and vibrant face. The carved relief in the left part of the painting depicts the marriage of Cupid and Psyche whose story Romney explored in a series of cartoons from 1777. The inclusion of this well-known relief sculpture, a gem version of which was then in the collection of the Duke of Marlborough, was in line with the nature of the commission and the marriage of Charlotte Bettesworth to John Sargent. A rather dark sculpture of Minerva or Athena suggesting wisdom was also included at the back of the table.

This picture is usually on display at Sudley House. George Holt who lived in Sudley bought it in 1888. His daughter Emma Holt bequeathed Sudley House and its collection of pictures to the Liverpool City Council when she died. Sudley House is now one of the eight venues of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.