George Romney: portraitist to rich and famous


Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton), one of the many portraits Romney did of her

Take a look at Regency books and chances are several of the covers will feature paintings of Emma Hamilton done by George Romney (1734-1802) well over 200 years ago. In the period from 1782 to 1785, he painted some 60 different portraits of the beauty, who was at that time going by the name Emma Hart.

Romney—who is related to the former Illinois governor of the same name as well as his son, presidential candidate Mitt Romney—actually changed the family’s spelling of the name, which was formerly Rumney.

At the age of 21, Romney was apprenticed for four years to a portrait painter. The apprenticeship (paid for by Romney’s cabinetmaker father) was to have lasted longer, but George Romney was able to buy himself out of the servitude and strike out on his own. In those early days when he was painting in the provinces, he charged six guineas for a whole-length portrait and two for a three-quarter figure.

In 1762 Romney came to London to make his fortune, leaving behind his wife and son. His wife, who was of a lower social class than he, never came to live with her husband in London during the nearly 40 years he was away. He provided generously for her—as well as helping out many of his ten siblings.

In London, he raised his prices to 8 guineas for a three-quarter portrait and began to receive many commissions from members of the legal profession, then from those in the theatre.

Ten years later he was making an exceedingly comfortable income of over £1,000 a year and was therefore finally able to travel to Italy to really study his art. He stayed abroad for two years.

Upon his return, he boldly took the large house and studio located at No. 32 Cavendish Square, an aristocratic neighborhood. One of his first patrons there was the Duke of Richmond, who commissioned him to paint his portrait—along with several copies of it, as was the custom in that day—and Romney also did portraits of various members of the duke’s family.

A long procession of aristocrats began to patronize him. This included Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (whose portrait was never finished due to her unreliability); her best friend Bess, who succeeded her as Duchess of Devonshire by marrying the 5th Duke; the Duchess of Gordon; the actress Mary Robinson as Perdita; and Mrs. Fitzherbert, illegal wife of George IV when he was Prince of Wales. Soon Romney’s income grew to a lavish £3,000 a year.

It was in the summer of 1782 that Romney came under the spell of Emma Hart, when her “protector” Charles Greville (nephew to her eventual husband, Sir William Hamilton) requested that Romney paint the exquisite creature.

The 48-year-old painter was smitten. Most believe his relationship with Emma was purely platonic, more like that of a father toward a daughter. The age gap between them was 22 years.

In Emma, he had found the perfect model for his mythological works. The Prince of Wales, too, was enchanted. He purchased two of Romney’s paintings of her, one as Calypso and the other as Magdalen, paying the staggering sum of £100 for each of them.

Romney and Emma were genuinely fond of one another. When Emma returned to England in 1800 and inquired about Romney, who had chosen to spend the last two year of his life in the country with his wife, Romney said, “The pleasure I should receive from the sight of the amiable Lady Hamilton would be as salutary as great, yet I fear, except I should enjoy more health and better spirits, I shall never be able to see London again.”