Towards the grand manner

Painting showing a family in formal dress

The Leigh Family
© (Felton Bequest), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

Returning to London after his second trip home, in 1767, Romney moved into new lodgings in Great Newport Street, near Covent Garden. This was a turning point in his career. For the first time he had a painting room large enough to carry out whole-length portraits in the grand manner popularised over the previous decade by Joshua Reynolds. 'The Leigh Family', an unconventional, almost heroic mixture of conversation piece and classical frieze, was the first fruit of his move.

Full length portrait painting of a woman in grey dress with red

Mrs Yates as the Tragic Muse
Reproduced by permission from the Collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane

Exhibited to great acclaim in 1768, 'The Leigh Family' plunged Romney into competition with Reynolds. Over the next four years Romney painted a series of ambitious works which appear to have been designed to publicly upstage Reynolds, newly-elected first President of the Royal Academy. Portraits such as 'Mrs. Yates as the Tragic Muse' show his adeptness with the vocabulary of neo-classicism, in which pose, costume, props and even the handling of pictorial space combine to give the work a fashionable suggestion of classical antiquity. However, many of the patrons most likely to recognise Romney's mastery of this style would be less impressed that he had not yet studied its sources at first hand, in Italy. Recognising this, Romney left London for Rome in March 1773.