George Romney

Date/place of birth

December 15, 1734, Dalton-in-Furness, United Kingdom

Day/place of death

November 15, 1802, Kendal, United Kingdom

The 18th century knew what posterity has at times forgotten: George Romney was one of the greatest portrait painters of his time, an undisputed master of his craft. No other portraitist depicted his models as sincerely and strongly, so profoundly and with such integrity – some viewers may have wished for more idealisation and embellishment. 

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George Romney - Training in the paternal workshop and with Christopher Steele

George Romney was born on 15 December 1734 in Dalton-in-Furness in the English county of Cumbria. He was not the only artist in the family; his father John Romney worked as a cabinetmaker and his younger brother Peter Romney worked as a painter up until his early death. Like his brothers, George Romney received his first tuition in the paternal workshop in Kendal, and was later a student under Christopher Steele, a respected portrait and genre painter also resident there. Following his marriage in 1756, he established his own studio. As the opportunities for development in Kendal proved insufficient, George Romney moved to London five years later without his young wife and their two small daughters to access a larger audience. His wishes were granted, and he was soon known and valued in the English capital for his great artistry. 

Travels in Europe with Ozias Humphrey, great success in London

George Romney became friends with his colleague Ozias Humphrey who had sold some of his works to the English court in 1772. Together they undertook an extended trip to Paris and Nice, Florence and Rome, both painters pursuing extensive art studies before returning to England in 1777 via Switzerland and France. George Romney settled again in London and took up residence in the former house of the famous pioneer of pastel painting, Francis Cotes, who had died a few years earlier. At last Romney had established himself as a painter and would be mentioned by the London public in the same breath as Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds, all of whom were classed as the most important English artists of the 18th century. He did not lack in honours: his painting The Death of General Wolfe was awarded a prize by the Royal Academy, and the Society of Arts invited him to their exhibitions. 

George Romney’s last years marked by illness

George Romney portrayed the greats of his time, among them Emma Lyon, who later achieved dubious fame as Lady Hamilton and mistress of England’s great naval hero Horatio Nelson. Romney created several commissions for the engraver and art dealer John Boydell of the Shakespeare Gallery, and also built up his own extensive art collection which consisted largely of casts of Roman antiquities produced on commission by the medalist and sculptor John Flaxman. Despite all these successes, George Romney suffered increasingly from depression in his later years and no longer found the accustomed and longed-for fulfilment in art. After his 65th birthday, he retired as an artist, gave notice on his apartment in London, and returned to his family in Kendal where he died from a serious illness on 15 November 1802. While George Romney was considered an undisputed master during his lifetime, later reception was varied and not always favourable. It is only in recent times that the art world has begun to appreciate the expressive, lifelike portraits of the great British artist once more.

© Kunsthaus Lempertz