GEORGE ROMNEY (1734-1802)
Heroic Drawings inspired by Shakespeare, Milton and Howard

6pm Thursday 25th February – Saturday 26th March 2016

Read Michael Caines’s TLS blog post on the exhibition here

     The drawings in this Exhibition come from three sketchbooks that George Romney filled c.1792-c.1794. The sketchbooks can viewed interactively, in their entirety, at the bottom of this page.

     We are grateful to Alex Kidson, author of the recent Catalogue Raisonné of Romney’s paintings (which you can buy here), for his introductions to the drawings and to each of Romney’s Heroic subjects – he has set the excitement of these drawings in perfect context.

The Romney Society

Those of you interested in Romney should immediately join The Romney Society (click here to visit their website). They regularly organise lectures, gallery visits, publish wonderful annual Transactions and award an Essay Prize to encourage Romney Scholarship.

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George Romney: Late Drawings

     In the first half of the 1790s Romney’s approach to drawing underwent the last of its endemic transformations. The large loose sheets with neo-classical ink and wash designs that dominated the artist’s sketches of the 1770s and 1780s and that would become his most familiar drawings for posterity gradually died away as he worked more and more directly on the pages of sketchbooks and returned increasingly to the use of pencil. Pencil and the mastery of pencil had in fact been the mainspring of his graphic art for most of Romney’s life. On his arrival in London in 1762 he had begun making delicate yet already movingly beautiful pencil designs in a large Liber Veritatis (the ‘Kendal Sketchbook’) that prepared or recorded many of his first compositions; and even as, at the end of the 1760s, he moved towards the greater use of ink, and later still ink and wash in his graphic work, he continued to use slight indications in pencil to establish the outlines of his designs. There is no excuse for regarding Romney’s preference for pencil drawing in his last years as one more symptom of that decline in his art beloved of certain commentators: it was a conscious aesthetic choice that had important creative implications.

     At the most basic level, working in pencil on the successive pages of fairly small sketchbooks connoted a desire for greater speed, greater concision and greater spontaneity. For all Romney’s certitude in the use of ink and wash, the medium itself and also the use of loose sheets demanded an element of formality and a degree of preparation that the ageing Romney may have come to regard increasingly as a threat to creativity – a recipe for loss of inspiration or failure of nerve; some kind of equivalent of writer’s block. By contrast, keeping a sketchbook and a pencil in his pocket for use at any moment privileged immediacy as an aesthetic requirement. John Romney, the artist’s son, recorded that in later life his father would make sketches on the wing on his walks around London and the surrounding countryside: in the past, the motifs of such sketches would have been recalled – and worked up –  in the studio.

     Greater speed, concision and spontaneity were only partially aesthetic ends in themselves: graphic parallels for the elimination of the trivial and concentration on essentials that were also aspects of his painting practice in these years. Fundamentally, they were also at the service of Romney’s changing approach to subject matter. As his senior position in the British art-world became more obvious and his pretensions as a history painter increased, the compositions that he visualised became more ambitious – often crowded with figures in complicated combinations and poses. Always a lover of the theatre, Romney increasingly conceived his subjects as tableaux, with dramatic lighting, and he used pencil because, more subtly than ink and wash, it permitted him to investigate tonal gradations, and effects of contre-jour and chiaroscuro; and above all to do so quickly, over and over, with minor variation. Commentators have often likened the experience of turning the pages of a late Romney sketchbook to riffling a sequence of cine-stills of one take of a film – only it is one with the unwanted edits, close-ups and offtakes thrown in. Each of the subjects of the drawings in this exhibition has a filmic character, and their individual treatments resonate with a sense of movement in time and space, of light and atmosphere.

Alex Kidson, January 2016

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Shakespeare: Macbeth
The Banqueting Scene (Act III, Scene 4)

     Romney has a vital, although insufficiently appreciated, place in the history of Shakespearean reception in the late 18th century. Although not book learned, the artist identified deeply with Shakespeare as a ‘child of nature’ genius – seeing in the youthful playwright parallels with himself. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, with the possible exception of King Lear, it was Macbeth that appealed to him most powerfully. He was especially drawn to the play’s supernatural elements centred around the three witches and to the episode in which Macbeth is confronted at his royal banquet by the ghost of his former comrade-in-arms Banquo, whom he has just had murdered.

     Romney originally intended a scene from Macbeth to be his first contribution to the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, of which he was one of the prime movers. For several years afterwards he worked intermittently on the Banquet scene both on loose sheets and in a number of sketchbooks. The visual qualities of the scene, with its dense mass of dark figures in theatrical poses offset by the pale, nebulous figure of the ghost, was perfectly suited to Romney’s late graphic technique.


Milton: Paradise Lost
Ithuriel and Zephon finding Satan at the Ear of Eve (Book IV)
The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (Book XI)

     Apart from Shakespeare, John Milton was the one literary figure who provided subject-matter for Romney over a long period of his life. In 1770 Romney exhibited full-length personifications of the poet’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, with Milton’s republican leanings already contributing to the context in which they were appreciated. By the end of the 1780s, advanced radical circles were re-inventing Milton and above all the anti-hero of his Paradise Lost, Satan, in the light of current events in France. Romney was drawn back into extensive study of the life and poetry of Milton in the early 1790s when his friend William Hayley began a revisionist biography of Milton to be published by Boydell. For this Romney created the large Milton and his Daughters, but following the completion of that work in 1793 he also secretly began planning a suite of six Paradise Lost paintings, ‘three where Satan is the hero, and three of Adam and Eve’. Ithuriel and Zephon finding Satan at the Ear of Eve and The Expulsion of Adam and Eve were probably two of these. Sketches for both subjects appear in many of Romney’s sketchbooks of the second quarter of the 1790s.


The Effects of Envy and Pride For Want of Faith
(For opposing factions and thinking for yourself)

     The source of this obscure subject, a crowd scene involving some kind of dispute, judgement and expulsion, is unknown. It may have been invented by the artist himself, and be one of the ‘satires on the time marking the follies peculiar to this age’ that, long before, he had noted would make good subject-matter. Conceivably it is a response to recent developments in the French Revolution, which Romney had begun by supporting but whose excesses increasingly disgusted and frightened him.  The most developed of Romney’s drawings is inscribed, as if anticipating that it might appear as a print, The Effects of Envy and Pride for Want of Faith and – seemingly – For Opposing Factions and Thinking for Yourself. It is possible to detect a compositional kinship with the concurrent Expulsion of Adam and Eve drawings and in characteristic Romney fashion, one was probably a spin-off from the other.


A Shipwreck at the Cape of Good Hope
Wolraad Woltemade rescuing passengers from the wrecked
Dutch Frigate De Jonge Thomas in Table Bay, June 1773.

     As with the subject of John Howard, a topical event in the outside world provided the spur for Romney’s ‘Shipwreck’ drawings. In 1773, off the Cape of Good Hope, a menagerie keeper rode repeatedly into the sea on his horse at the height of a storm to rescue drowning men and women from a sinking ship, eventually being swept to his own death. To judge by one early drawing, Romney seems to have heard the story soon after the event, but it was only the publication of an account of the episode in Europe two decades later that led him to return to the subject more fully. In complete contrast with his approach to John Howard, only relatively few drawings survive but perversely Romney did achieve a large oil sketch, now lost but known from the engraving by William Blake. It is a grand and remarkable image of marine disaster, its Romantic idiom twenty years ahead of The Raft of the Medusa.


John Howard (1726-1790) Visiting a Lazaretto

     As with the Milton subjects, Romney’s interest in the subject of John Howard was kindled by William Hayley. Celebrated philanthropist and prison reformer, Howard was a figure well calculated to appeal to the two men’s enlightened and radical ideals, and Romney had provided a vignette for Hayley’s Ode to Howard as early as 1780. But it was Howard’s death from typhus in the Crimea in 1790 that unleashed Romney’s full creativity, as over the next four years he made a huge number of studies for a proposed painting of Howard, under the eye of a satanic gaoler, visiting a dungeon full of sick and dying prisoners.

     Characteristically, Romney got nowhere with the painting, his sketches progressively assuming the character of an independent creative enterprise in their own right. Many of the earlier studies were made on large sheets in ink and wash as well as in sketchbooks and in these the figures of Howard and the gaoler are well developed. However Romney seems instinctively to have rejected the conventional good-against-evil narrative implicit in their confrontation. His later studies, chiefly in graphite, concentrate in various degrees of detail on the prisoners, and when the figure of Howard appears at all, it is treated more ambivalently, as though Romney has pessimistically understood that one man’s reforming zeal could little affect the human suffering that is at the dark heart of the image.


Entrust thy Care to Truth Alone / and Rugged Virtue will Guard thy Throne

     This subject is even more recondite than The Effects of Envy and Pride and this exhibition marks the first time that it has been recognised as a discrete entity. It consists of a procession of female figures up a hillside to a temple whose priestess greets them at the top of its steps, and apart from the present group it is known only from one wash drawing (in the National Gallery of Scotland) whose subject has hitherto not been recognised. The full title is expressed in a couplet inscribed in Romney’s hand on one of the sheets: Entrust thy care to Truth alone/ And Rugged Virtue will guard thy Throne. Variant versions of these words appear on a different sheet, with animated and pure in place of rugged and deck in place of guard. It is unclear whether Romney worked the verse out in collaboration with Hayley or whether it is his own. Conceivably he developed the subject as a pendant to The Effects of Envy and Pride to which both thematically and visually it stands in obvious contrast.

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Mrs and Mrs Howard Samuel and by Descent.

Note on the Provenance:

     Romney’s drawings and sketchbooks were inherited by his son the Rev. John Romney (1757-1832) who made two large bequests of his father’s drawings – to the University of Cambridge, in 1817, where they entered the newly founded Fitzwilliam Museum, and to the Liverpool Royal Institution in 1823, which are now in the Walker Art Gallery. However, no sketchbooks or drawings were included in the 1807 sale of his father’s paintings, and none were included in John Romney’s sale in 1834. Those sketchbooks still in the family’s possession did not appear on the market until John Romney’s daughter Elizabeth’s posthumous sale in 1894 at Christies. The large number of sketchbooks that appeared in the Elizabeth Romney Sale, and the sheets that were subsequently removed from them, now form the core of most major private and public collections of Romney’s drawings. A checklist of the more than fifty known Romney Sketchbooks in public collections was published by Alex Kidson and Yvonne Romney Dixon, based on the earlier research of Barry Maclean Eltham, in the Transactions of the Romney Society (Vol. 8, 2003).

Note: Page numbers allocated by the programme that allows you to flick through the sketchbooks below does not correspond to our cataloguing – the programme numbers the covers and inside covers, throwing the page numbering off by two. Please refer to our illustrations above for the correct page numbering.


Sketchbook A
We are pleased to announce that all the drawings from Sketchbook A
have been acquired by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

     Half-calf binding with marbled boards. 46pp of wove paper. The cover inscribed and dated by the artist ‘NI / May 1792’. The Sketchbook: 14.5×23.5cms. The Pages: 14x23cms. Contents: Twenty-eight drawings – six for Macbeth, eighteen for Paradise Lost, one for The Effects of Envy and Pride, and two pages of figure sketches relating to unidentified compositions.



Sketchbook B

     Half-calf binding with marbled boards. 38pp of wove paper watermarked ‘Whatman’. The cover inscribed by the artist ‘Satan / Howard’. The Sketchbook: 14.5×23.5cms. The Pages: 14x23cms. Contents: Seventeen drawings – thirteen for John Howard Visiting a Lazaretto, three drawings for The Effects of Envy and Pride, one page of figure sketches for an unidentified composition.



Sketchbook C

     Half-calf binding with marbled boards. 52pp of wove paper watermarked ‘Whatman 1794’. The Sketchbook: 14.5×23.5cms. The Pages: 14x23cms. Contents: Thirty-five drawings – eight for A Shipwreck at the Cape of Good Hope, five for Entrust thy Care to Truth Alone, four pages of figure sketches for unidentified compositions and sixteen architectural sketches relating to Romney’s plans to build a house, gallery and studio thirteen of which we have given to the RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections


CLICK HERE to read Sketchbook C the other way round.