George Romney, British art's forgotten genius

Exhibition closed 2002

Self-portrait at the age of forty-nine, 1784
© National Portrait Gallery, London


The year 2002 marks the bi-centenary of the death of George Romney, one of the leading artists in Britain during the last quarter of the 18th century. Romney was born and died in the Northwest, although he made his name in London. At the height of his career he was more fashionable than Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough as a society portraitist, but all his life he wanted to paint elevated historical and literary subjects. He lacked the confidence to carry out many of his most ambitious projects, but in the last fifteen years of his working life, under the spell of his favourite model and muse Emma Hart, later the celebrated Lady Hamilton, he produced a sequence of Shakespearean and other fancy subjects which count among the most imaginative and poetic canvases of their time.

The association of Romney's name with Lady Hamilton's in the Victorian era contributed to the subsequent eclipse of his reputation as a serious artist. In the twentieth century, Romney was gradually re-evaluated as a brilliant, spontaneous draughtsman whose mind teemed with ideas, but who lacked the application to turn his sketches into finished works. Romney's mature drawings were recognised as having been highly influential on a group of younger contemporaries such as John Flaxman and William Blake, and their modernity has appealed to many twentieth-century artists.

This is the first ever exhibition which surveys the whole range of Romney's art, from his grandest full-length portraits to the tiny thumbnail studies preserved in sketchbooks. It reveals an ambitious and progressive artist who developed and re-invented himself continuously.