George Romney's cartoons - Walker collection

A seated female figure watches two young children playing with snakes

'Medea Contemplating the Murder of her Children'

Executed in black chalk on six or nine sheets of paper glued together at the edges, the cartoons are a unique aspect of Romney's work. The sculptor John Flaxman described them as 'examples of the sublime and terrible, at that time perfectly new in English art'. Romney began making them in the mid-1770s, either towards the end of his stay in Rome or immediately after his return to London. In Rome, Romney had worked in the circle of the Swiss-born artist Henry Fuseli, who made highly finished, monochrome drawings on historical subjects intended to compete with paintings at public exhibitions. Although his cartoons were larger and more severe in style than Fuseli's drawings, Romney initially seems to have envisaged them as operating in the same way, as 'virtual paintings' rather than as preparatory studies - the traditional function of cartoons for earlier artists.

Romney made cartoons for about ten years, using them to explore subjects from classical and modern literature with which he closely identified. Although they appear controlled in comparison with his smaller, more spontaneous drawings, it would be a mistake to regard them as the final distillation of his ideas about the subjects concerned. Drawn at night after hours of work on portrait commissions, they acted as a release for his energies and were the expression of his most powerful creative urges.

From the first, the cartoons' fragile medium and construction placed them at risk. Some are known to have been destroyed in Romney's lifetime. The eighteen in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery are the only ones now known to survive. They were presented to the Liverpool Royal Institution in 1823 by the artist's son, who had already had to conserve them. Later restorations have altered their appearance further still.