Indeed, if a film were ever to be made of the artist George Romney’s unusual life, an apt title might be Obsession, for he was a man too obsessed with beauty. Not abstract beauty, but beauty made flesh. His obsession with a beautiful woman who was no better than she should be -- and arguably the most gorgeous woman of the period – might have played a part both in damaging his career at its outset and, later, hastening the onset of the depression that ultimately led to his death. He painted this woman many, many times, leaving sketchbooks full of unfinished drawings of her incomparable face. She was to call him her “friend and more than father,” but the passionate artist may have desired a bit more than that from her… Was he in love with her? I think so. Were they lovers, however briefly? Possibly.
This unfinished portrait of George Romney circa 1781/2—at about the time of the first meetings with his beautiful sitter -- is at London’s National Portrait Gallery. He was to leave a number of paintings unfinished and many more in badly damaged condition.
Romney could never catch a break. Though extremely talented and not totally bereft of friends, he was basically an eccentric and a loner, and, by undercutting the fees of other portrait painters – especially those who were members of the Royal Academy – he made himself anathema to their circle. Some RA members were openly, vehemently, hostile to him. His was a brooding, nervous, morbidly sensitive personality, to the point of melancholy, or, to use the modern term, depression. He was tall and stocky and had broad, strong features, dark hair, and eyes that seemed to bore into the eyes of others with great ferocity. His self-portraits show his direct, almost challenging gaze. Contemporary accounts witnessed that he could be quite forceful in expressing his opinions. Some, though, described his personality as weak, and he did tend to cry easily. His biographer and closest friend, the poet William Hayley, said of him that his inner feelings were “perilously acute”. Romney was a man perched on the razor’s edge of his emotions.
In his old age, alas, Romney became mentally unstable and his mind simply slipped away. He was for a very long while the foremost of Britain’s lost artists, quite unknown, a forgotten genius. His association at the time with that great beauty had not done his reputation a great deal of good, though today his portraits of her are among the most exquisite in his large oeuvre and among the most respected examples of his work.
Like Reynolds and Gainsborough, Romney came from a modest background and there were no practicing artists in his family. Romney’s father – the boy was one of his eleven children -- was a Lancashire cabinet maker. Romney’s father sent him to study with a local Cumberland artist, an itinerant painter named Christopher Steele, in 1755, when he was about 20 years old. He began his career as a journeyman artist/itinerant painter in the Lake District, to this day still one of the more remote areas in England’s northwest. During a spell of illness, Romney convalesced in a Lake District inn and was nursed back to health by the landlady’s daughter, Mary (Molly) Abbott. She was eight years older, not an educated woman, and odds are that he made her pregnant. He married her – the story goes that he instantly regretted it -- but they had at least two children, a boy, John (who went on to be a don at Cambridge and subsequently the well-off landowner of Whitestock Hall in the Lake District), and a girl, Ann (who died at the age of three). There are no known portraits by his hand of his wife.
He left them all behind in 1762 when he took himself off to London; he was two years shy of 30. He’d held a lottery in Kendal’s town hall of 20 of his historical paintings and landscapes which garnered him 41 guineas. He shared this money and his savings with his wife and then left her and his children for the bright lights/big city to the southeast that was soon to become a metropolis of a million people. London beckoned!
Romney saw early success in the burgeoning metropolis and was noticed by and actually invited to join the new Royal Academy, where Reynolds and Gainsborough reigned supreme. He declined the invitation, in retrospect a bad decision, for he was never again invited to join this prestigious group. (His excuse was that he already belonged to – and was on the board of -- the Incorporated Society of Artists, and felt it was bad form to leave them to join the RA, which the RA demanded he do.) At this time, however, he made a fortunate acquaintance of the Duke of Richmond, who was to become a life-long patron of his work. In 1772 his yearly income had risen to £1200.
Romney spent two years in Italy, returning to London in 1775. He lived alone, working out of a studio/dwelling at 24 Cavendish Square. The Cavendish Square studio was where he first met Emma Hart, as the young woman with whom he’d become obsessed was then calling herself. She was living at the time with her protector, Charles Greville. A deal was struck, with Emma Hart at its center, a money-making scheme that was to make use of his mistress’s great beauty. The resulting paintings would be sold to the highest bidder, and would be an income-generator for both men, though not, alas, for Emma. But for Romney, it became more than that: meeting Emma was to forever change his life. He was then over thirty years older than his model and soon fell completely under her spell.
Sittings for portraits were customarily in one-hour segments, perhaps requiring no more than 2-3 sittings at best. It is estimated that over the years Emma Hart was to sit for Romney more than 300 times. (There’s some quibbling about how many times she sat for him. Some sources say 100 times, others 180 times. I think the highest number is most likely.) That’s 300+ hours, if one goes for the standard one-hour posing, but this was not the case with her sittings with Romney. They took a good deal more than one hour and were not the usual painter-sitter occasions.
Later, Romney’s son was to insist in his Memoirs that there was always a chaperone present, but this was probably to dispel those ever-present rumors that Romney and Emma had indeed indulged in an affair; he was obviously trying to protect his late father’s reputation, already damaged by the scandal attached to those long years of living apart from his wife. One has to understand that sitting for an artist was, for the subject, a social occasion. Friends dropped in. Women dropped in. Men dropped in. Greville wanted NO ONE to drop in; he forbade it. He knew that flirting could take place, and that it could lead to other things. But I think that for Greville it was more a case of him exercising complete control over his young mistress than jealousy. Charles Greville was truly a control freak.
Emma as Circe the seductress in a study for the final painting, circa 1782-6, Tate Britain London
Her protector apparently took great pleasure in Emma inspiring lust in other men, but he was extremely secure in his relationship with her. He was domineering, somewhat mean, not at all physically attractive or terribly charming, but he’d schooled the vulnerable young girl (traumatized, no doubt, by her recent pregnancy) into giving him absolute obedience. He was a sharp contrast to Sir Harry, who’d encouraged her to visit London on her own, taught her to ride horses and had her entertain his friends. If young bucks the likes of Sir Harry had been allowed to drop in on Emma’s sittings with Romney, she might have met a more generous and less overwhelming man who could have set her up in better style and with whom she might have been happier, but she was stuck with Greville, completely cowed by him. Such a beautiful girl; it was a pity.
Her complexion was enviably flawless (one writer, obviously discarding the cliché phrase to denote the complexions of English beauties, roses and cream, called it a “velvet skin of lilies and roses”); her auburn hair was thick and cascading (think of today’s hair models on television, with their glossy, flowing tresses); and she was tall, with good square shoulders and a substantial bosom.
Emma Hart In A Straw Hat
So, solitary sittings, no visitors, and unlimited time to pose and to paint... Consider…had Greville really thought this out? He’d made sure that his ladybird, his mistress, was alone with an up-and-coming artist who was rather well known for his passionate emotions. Was this really wise? Actually, it would have been odder if there was no affair – or, at the very least, some hanky-panky – between them. I think that Emma, being Emma, and Romney being Romney, something had to have occurred.
Of course we shall never know for sure what transpired between painter and model during those many hours of sittings, but one biographer noted Emma reveled in the opportunity to pose and act, and that she sang and danced for Romney as well as posed, that she was thoroughly uninhibited. She apparently felt relaxed in his company and free to give full vent to her artistic side, as the many and varied expressions she struck for Romney bear witness in his sketches and completed paintings. She was an entertainer.
Whilst Greville sat in Portman Square rubbing his hands raw in glee, anticipating the many thousands of guineas he’d make from the allegorical portraits Romney was churning out for him – of all the paintings Greville commissioned, he was only to pay for one, the cheapskate -- the artist was no doubt in ecstasy in Emma’s free and easy company. She was being herself, remember, a self she could rarely be with the disagreeable, often disapproving Greville, and that self was an entertainer out to please and a natural seductress. Romney probably thought he’d died and gone to heaven. (Remember, too, that the wife he’d all too easily abandoned was hardly a beauty.)
The first sketches Romney made of Emma – recall his skill with line and imagine him drawing away – eventually became the painting called Lady Hamilton as Nature. Over the centuries many men continued to be obsessed with this beautiful creature brought so vividly to life by George Romney. He was neither the first nor the last.
Lady Hamilton as Nature, from 1782
She was brimming with youth and health in those portraits, having the big-eyed looks of a baby-faced young girl and the voluptuous body of a grown woman. A dazzling combination.
Emma, Lady Hamilton, 1785, is at the National Portrait Gallery in London
Within ten years, everything in the lives of these three people had changed. The sittings had ceased for a time, but the existing paintings further reinforced the celebrity of Emma Hart and the painterly reputation of George Romney. They did not, however turn into the gold Charles Greville had been seeking when he commissioned Romney, and the painter, in turn, did not receive what he expected monetarily, either. Emma, though apparently in love with her parsimonious protector, was becoming tired of living so frugally. Greville, on his part, began to find her cloying and was ever more anxious to find a rich wife. In 1783, Sir William came to London and met his nephew’s mistress. He fell under her spell and immediately commissioned further paintings of her, from Sir Joshua Reynolds as well as Romney. And he paid.
During this time, according to a pupil of Romney’s, he was also painting Emma’s face into a number of history and allegorical works, as his sketchbooks were filled with her face in its changing nuances of expression to slot into various characters and poses. She was still his muse as well as his great obsession.
By 1792, with the demise of his greatest rivals Thomas Gainsborough (1788) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1792), George Romney had at last achieved the first rank of portrait painters in England. Though he never became a member of the Royal Academy, he was now in the position of having to turn prospective clients away, and could charge on a scale comparative with RA painters. George Romney was to see Emma only one more time, when she returned to England just before her marriage to Lord Hamilton. She once again sat for him – many were the sittings -- but we can imagine that the circumstances were very different from those first halcyon days in the early 1780s. So, there ends the tale of the painter and his beautiful, unattainable muse.
In England’s Mistress, the most recent biography of Emma Hamilton, Kate Williams writes "Romney’s obsession with Emma pervaded his work for the rest of his life. He filled dozens of sketchbooks with pictures of her nude, clothed, and in various poses. Even when he painted other women, he made them look like her. He showed her exuberant, sensual personality and her pleasure in life and he never equaled the vibrancy and grace of his portraits of her in his other work." I would add some further comments, though Williams’ remarks are thoughtful and true, in my opinion. Like Reynolds and Gainsborough, Romney was a slave to beauty, but, as his was a more extreme personality than either of those two artists; he was to suffer for beauty in the extreme. Reynolds loved the actress Fanny Abington and painted a number of portraits of her; he might well have had a sexual affair with her. Gainsborough painted the courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott twice (and had sketches for a third portrait), the second painting so alluring it caused a good deal of talk; she was doubtless one of the beautiful sitters who so aroused him that he had to hie himself off to Covent Garden after a sitting to slake his lust, a virtual affair, at best.
Of the three, given the temperaments of both artist and model, the close intimacy of the sitting arrangements, with no one else present, it is difficult not to believe that sexual activity took place. He painted her in the nude; she sang and danced with inhibition; she was probably the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The portraits of Emma pop out with passion. Of course there was lovemaking!
But what did it mean? For him, probably everything; for her, not as much. Emma Hart was a product of the rural English countryside, as was Romney. Emma had had a smattering of lessons, in riding horses, in how to please men, and became more and more savvy in the ways of society, but she was forever characterized by those who met her as “vulgar” and “coarse”. The sow’s ear did not produce a silk purse. But it did not matter to the men who were overwhelmed by her beauty. All else was irrelevant. Men had to have her, and a wealthy aristocrat finally did marry her, the ultimate possession. Emma, being Emma, then lost it all by falling in love with a national hero.
What did Romney think about all this? Another thing, alas, we shall never know, but anyone who looks at those portraits and does not sense the love radiating from those brush strokes is a hardened character indeed. He, like Lord Hamilton, lost Emma, too, but those paintings remain and they signify quite a lot.
George Romney’s decline was swift once he left London in 1799. He died in 1802, the only one of the Gainsborough-Reynolds-Romney trio to survive into the 19th century. There are hints throughout his son’s book that Romney, his father, and his brother Peter all suffered from a possibly inherited tendency to clinical depression that brought upon their demise. It’s possible; too, that George Romney’s death was hastened by the loss of his beloved Emma, who was not to sit for him again after that one last time in London.