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George Romney’s sketchbook in the National Gallery of Victoria: the development of a new expressive vocabulary


The National Gallery of Victoria’s sketchbook by George Romney (1734–1802)1The sketchbook is a vellum-covered book measuring 19.8 x 15.9 cm and containing sixty-nine leaves. It was acquired through the Felton Bequest. was purchased in 1960, one year after the acquisition of Romney’s painting The Leigh family, c.1768 (fig. 1). In an earlier issue of this journal, Burke related eleven drawings from the sketchbook to The Leigh family,2J. Burke, ‘Romney’s “Leigh Family” (1768): A Link between the Conversation Piece and the Neo-Classical Portrait Group’, Annual Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. II, 1960, pp. 5–14. Burke’s list is derived from the work of Patricia Milne Henderson, who had studied the sketchbook before its purchase by the Gallery. The eleven drawings Burke discusses include that on the verso of folio 62. It is from this sketch, which shows a range of seated figures, that Romney appears to have chosen the pose for Mr Leigh. an important painting from Romney’s oeuvre in that it represents the measure of his success as an artist in London at quite an early stage in his career. The connection with The Leigh family makes the Gallery’s sketchbook one of only two known books that can be dated to before 1773, when Romney departed for Italy. The other book, now in the collection of the Royal Academy, London, contains drawings made in Italy as well as drawings that postdate Romney’s return to England in 1775, and it seems likely that the Gallery’s sketchbook similarly contains work from both before and after the artist’s stay in Italy.3Subject matter and stylistic considerations would seem to suggest that Romney used the sketchbook until the late 1770s (see A. Crookshank, ‘The Drawings of George Romney’, Burlington Magazine, vol. XCIX, January 1957, p. 43; P. Jaffe, Drawings by George Romney, Cambridge, 1977). 

The focus on the relatedness of a number of the drawings to The Leigh family has meant that little attention has been paid to the other studies in the Melbourne sketchbook, some of which can be clearly associated with ideas for work based on literary and historical subjects, and were very probably inspired by Romney’s study in Rome. It is through these drawings that important aspects of Romney’s aesthetic practice and response to contemporary cultural discourse are made evident. 

In the hierarchy of the arts in the late eighteenth century the most highly esteemed subject dealt with historical, including literary, themes, especially those taken from classical sources. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), while President of the Royal Academy, extolled the virtues of history painting as the highest level of achievement to which an artist could aspire.4See, for example, J. Reynolds, Discourses on Art, vol. III, ed. R. Wark, New Haven, 1975, pp. 50–2. Here Reynolds describes the ‘grand style’ as art ‘with great ideas’ and portrait painting as ‘of not so great merit’. This view was in spite of the fact that the category of painting most strongly represented at the Royal Academy was portraiture.5See M. Pointon, ‘Portrait Painting as a Business Enterprise in London in the 1780s’, Art History, vol. 7, 1984, pp. 187–203. Romney earned his reputation, and his income, through portrait painting, being second only to Reynolds in the demand for his work. Nevertheless, Romney constantly sought to paint grand historical works, the evidence of which aspiration is in a few completed paintings but, more convincingly, in his extensive range of drawings. 

Before his departure for Italy, Romney had also produced drawings of a number of English literary subjects, including some inspired by Shakespeare and by Milton, but it is after his return to London that his drawings reveal the fullest exploration of literary themes. 

A fine example of a drawing that is almost certainly based on a subject from literature is the sketch on folio 35 of the Gallery’s sketchbook (fig. 2). This depiction of a sorrowful female figure alone in a darkened landscape has been rapidly and confidently drawn, and clearly indicates that the artist was trying to encapsulate the essentials of the scene quite economically. It is possible to suggest here that the figure can be identified as the character of Maria. from Laurence Sterne’s novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–67) and A Sentimental Journey (1768).6For descriptions of Maria, see L. Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy by Mr Yorick (1768), London, 1968, pp. 113–17; and his The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–67), vol. IX, Oxford, 1983, pp. 522–3. Romney had illustrated scenes from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy previously, and it is more than likely that he would also have read A Sentimental Journey.7C. M. Gordon, British Paintings of Subjects from English Novels 1740–1870, London, 1988, p. 263, notes that Romney made four paintings based on Tristram Shandy, in the period 1761–62; the whereabouts of these four works are now unknown. A. B. Chamberlain, George Romney, London, 1910, p. 79, suggests that Romney had read A Sentimental Journey and points out that, at the time of the artist’s sojourn on the Continent, Sterne’s novel was considered essential reading for all English travellers. The figure of Maria – a young, beautiful and virtuous woman driven to melancholy madness when she is deserted by her lover – had great public appeal. In fact Maria was so popular that excerpts describing her in A Sentimental Journey were published separately, and numerous paintings and engravings of her were produced during the latter part of the century.8See, for example, Gordon, pp. 72–7. Gordon also notes that images of Maria appeared on a great variety of sundry items; these included everyday objects such as watch-cases, but Maria was also featured on a Wedgwood cameo. 

Romney’s fellow artist in Rome, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), may have provided the impetus for Romney to revisit subjects from Sterne. It was through the small colony of English artists in Rome that Wright and Romney became friends, and it seems likely that they studied the works of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel together.9See B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, London, 1960, p. 7. While in Rome in 1774, Wright painted The captive, from Sterne (present whereabouts unknown), a depiction of a character from A Sentimental Journey, and he planned to paint a companion piece, using Maria as the subject. It was not until after Wright’s return to England that, in 1777, he produced his painted version of Maria (now private collection); he was to make a second version (now Derby Museum and Art Gallery) in 1781. However, Maria figures prominently among the drawings of characters from the novel that Wright executed while in Rome.10For a discussion of the two painted versions of Maria and their relationship to Wright’s Rome sketches, see J. Egerton, Joseph Wright of Derby (exh. cat.), Tate Gallery, London, 1990, cat. nos 52, 58, reprs. Romney often sought suggestions and inspiration for subject matter from his friends, and it would have been natural for the two artists to have discussed their current work. 

In A Sentimental Journey, Sterne describes Maria as seated with ‘her head leaning on one side within her hand’,11Sterne, A Sentimental Journey, p. 114. the pose that was typically used for her by many artists during the period. Based on the traditional pose for melancholia, this mode of representation was entirely appropriate for Maria, but its absence in Romney’s drawing does not rule out our identification. Rather, it is possible that Romney based his drawing on a loose amalgam of the descriptions of Maria in both of Sterne’s novels, and, more importantly, that he was seeking an alternative mode for conveying emotion. There are details associated with Maria – such as the pipe on which she played her wistful tunes, and her companion animals (a goat in Tristram Shandy and a dog in A Sentimental Journey) – that are not apparent in the drawing. Details such as these could easily be added in the final painting, but as with so many of Romney’s ideas this drawing was never realised in paint. Romney’s drawing of the forlorn figure in a landscape that emphasises her singularity and isolation is in keeping with Sterne’s account of ‘poor Maria’, whom the narrator-traveller finds seated in a ‘little opening by the roadside leading to a thicket’.12ibid. The landscape is used by Sterne as an elaboration of the mood of his character, a mood that Romney sought to develop through the expressive form of the figure itself. 

There are various drawings elsewhere in the sketchbook, such as those on the versos of folios 11 and 13 (figs 3 & 4), where an approach to the depiction of melancholic women can be identified and where Romney may be seen to be transforming the formulaic into the expressive. Romney’s predilection for stories where the element of human tragedy was at its most poignant or intense necessitated the study of forms where an emotional state was embodied in the form itself rather than in typological gestures and expressions. Romney, like his contemporaries, had studied the work of important seventeenth-century artists and theorists such as Charles Le Brun (1619–1690).13Romney owned Le Brun’s Method to Learn to Design the Passions (London, 1734). For Le Brun’s work and its significance, see J. Montagu, The Expression of the Passions: The Origin and Influence of Charles Le Brun’s ‘Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière’, New Haven, 1994. Artists could study the models provided by Le Brun and note the effects on the human face of a large range of emotions. The drawing Bodily and mental pain (Louvre, Paris) (fig. 5), which Le Brun based on the figure of the son in the classical sculpture of Laocoon, makes an interesting comparison with Romney’s female figures, particularly the sketch on the verso of folio 13 (fig. 4). The inclination of the head, and areas of shading, can be related to Le Brun’s drawing, but where Le Brun has focused on the expressive features of the face Romney has shifted the emphasis to the expressive form of the body as a whole. It is interesting that, at some stage during his stay in Rome, Romney made his own study of the Laocoon. In this drawing, now in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, he similarly concentrated on the entire form rather than on the facial details. 

The development of Romney’s expressive vocabulary was fostered, in the years after his return from Italy, through his relationship with the connoisseur, archaeologist and philologist Richard Payne Knight (1751–1824).14Richard Payne Knight’s An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste was published in 1805; for Knight’s letters to Romney, see J. Romney, Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Romney, London, 1830. The two met while on the Continent and became friends, exchanging ideas on art and aesthetics. Of particular interest is Knight’s advice on the significance of the passions and their expression in the arts, advice that is documented in a letter written to Romney in 1776. Knight explained his theory of the division of the passions and went on to advise Romney that an artist must seek ‘the physical effects of each particular passion on the human frame and the particular forms or faces that are more or less subject to such passions’.15Richard Payne Knight, letter to George Romney, 24 November 1776, cited in Romney, p. 323. Importantly, Knight argued that ‘[m]ental sorrow produces a careless position of the limbs, a sullen, fixed look and a general languor and repose through the whole frame’.16Knight letter, 24 November 1776, cited in Romney, p. 322. Each of these essential characteristics, including sloping shoulders, carelessly folded hands and the ‘general languor’ of the forms, is clearly discernible in a number of the drawings in the Gallery’s sketchbook. Romney’s interest in the specifics of the expressive form as articulated by Knight indicates that the artist was in fact refashioning the contemporary representation of the melancholic female figure. 

One of the factors that would have necessitated such a shift was the appropriation of the pictorial language of melancholy in the portraiture of the time. Romney’s sketch for a portrait of a lady, on folio 15 of the Gallery’s sketchbook, exemplifies this practice (fig. 6).17This sketch has been related by Patricia Milne Henderson to The Leigh family (see Burke, p. 12). Romney’s figure, if indeed it is Mrs Leigh, was altered for the painting. The artist also used this pose in various other portraits. In this study the gesture of the hand supporting the head has been drawn from the allegorical or emblematic representations of Melancholy personified, which find their most noted visual expression in Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, 1514 (B.74) (fig. 7). Dürer’s work brought together a rich and complex tradition of philosophical and mathematical ideas and was to have a profound and lasting influence on artists right up to the nineteenth century.18See R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky & F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art, London, 1964. Various portrait artists through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used the gesture of melancholy in their work but it was not until the eighteenth century that the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of the gesture finally gave way, at least in portraiture, to the idea of a pleasurable, and fashionable, state of contemplation. Romney himself used the gesture – to signal this new meaning – in many of his portraits, especially in portrayals of ladies, though in the study on folio 15 the barest suggestion of the pose seems sufficient to his purposes. 

It was perhaps the association with a fashionable sensibility that provoked Romney to seek an alternative form of expression for melancholy. In individual portraits the gesture of head resting on hand alluded to a state of mind but in the literary and historical subjects that Romney planned the expressive form of the figure had not only to embody emotion but also to convey concepts true to the spirit of the narrative. Romney’s interest in developing his own specific female type can thus partly be seen as representative of his engagement with the theories on the passions and with pictorial conventions for connoting them. The impetus to produce such a type, however, must also be related to broad cultural concerns where the feminine body was becoming a metaphor for human emotion in general. 

The latter half of the eighteenth century has been identified by many scholars as a transitional period where the public virtues of civic humanism gradually gave way to the private virtues of a refined sensibility.19Much has been written about the notion of civic humanism in art (see, for example, D. Solkin, Painting for Money, New Haven, 1993, pp. 157–213; J. Barren, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: ‘The Body of the Public’, New Haven, 1986; R. Rosenblum, Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art, Princeton, 1967); for a broader treatment of significant changes that occurred in eighteenth-century aesthetic theory and practice, see M. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, New York, 1953; E. Tuveson, The Imagination as a Means of Grace, Berkeley, 1960. Theorists writing on aesthetics increasingly urged artists and poets alike to engage the sympathetic imagination of their audiences and inspire an affective response to their work. The clergyman and philosopher Alexander Gerard (1728–1795), whose comments can be taken as representative of many, claimed that the proper function of painting was to dispose men ‘to friendship, generosity, love, and the whole train of kind affections’.20A. Gerard, An Essay on Taste, 1759, Menston, Yorkshire, 1971, p. 204. In order to achieve this end, artists were encouraged to draw upon experience and nature and to use literary sources in which an emotional state as expressed by the characters was the focus of the work. 

Female characters, in particular, provided the opportunity to explore human emotions, especially those dealing with pain and sadness. For example, the eponymous heroines of Samuel Richardson’s novels Clarissa and Pamela were very popular exemplars of women with a heightened sensibility. A further observation on this type of character is found in Richardson’s own comment on his preference for an image of the good woman over that of the good man because ‘[s]oftness of the heart, gentleness of manner, tears, beauty will allow of pathetic scenes in the story of one, which cannot have a place in the other’.21Samuel Richardson, letter to Lady Bradshaigh, 24 March 1751, in S. Richardson, Selected Letters, ed. J. Carroll, Oxford, 1964, p. 180.

A significant influence on Romney’s choice of subjects from classical and contemporary literature was William Hayley (1745–1820). Hayley was Romney’s first biographer and after their initial meeting in 1777 was to become his friend, mentor and adviser. Through his own knowledge of classical literature and by introducing Romney to many of the literary figures of the day, Hayley fed the artist’s particular passion for stories of pathos and tragedy. It is from Hayley that we have the description of Romney as a man of heightened sensibilities whose melancholy state of mind led him to suffer bouts of serious depression when he was unable to work and who, even in his good times, frequently experienced a ‘powerful and imperious fancy’ that precluded the completion of his ideas.22W. Hayley, The Life of George Romney, Esq., London, 1809, p. 55. 

While Hayley’s interpretation of Romney’s life may be charged with an over-use of poetic licence, it is nevertheless true that numerous of Romney’s ideas for history paintings only ever reached the drawing stage. In one letter to Hayley, Romney regretted the fact that he was unable to spend as much time as he would have liked on his history subjects, and remarked: ‘This cursed portrait painting! How I am shackled with it’.23George Romney, letter to William Hayley, February 1787, cited in Hayley, p. 55. If not in his paintings, it is at least in his drawings that we can see Romney breaking free of his ‘shackles’ and exploring subject matter from a wide range of sources. 

The task of assigning identifications to Romney’s drawings is complicated by the fact that he concentrated his attention on the expressive form of his figures, rather than on the specific individual attributes of his characters or on narrative detail. The pathos of his subjects is communicated directly through the actions of the figures. This approach was a very calculated response to the public’s demand for an art that engaged the emotions, as well as reflecting Romney’s own desire to produce works that expressed sublime passions. The Melbourne sketchbook allows us to see Romney in the process of developing his expressive vocabulary and amply indicates the scope of his artistic imagination. 

Jennifer Jones-O’Neill, Department of Art History, La Trobe University (in 1999).

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Dr Robert Gaston, Dr Mark McDonald, Irena Zdanowicz and Sonia Dean for their contributions and encouragement. 

 

Notes

1     The sketchbook is a vellum-covered book measuring 19.8 x 15.9 cm and containing sixty-nine leaves. It was acquired through the Felton Bequest. 

2     J. Burke, ‘Romney’s “Leigh Family” (1768): A Link between the Conversation Piece and the Neo-Classical Portrait Group’, Annual Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. II, 1960, pp. 5–14. Burke’s list is derived from the work of Patricia Milne Henderson, who had studied the sketchbook before its purchase by the Gallery. The eleven drawings Burke discusses include that on the verso of folio 62. It is from this sketch, which shows a range of seated figures, that Romney appears to have chosen the pose for Mr Leigh. 

3     Subject matter and stylistic considerations would seem to suggest that Romney used the sketchbook until the late 1770s (see A. Crookshank, ‘The Drawings of George Romney’, Burlington Magazine, vol. XCIX, January 1957, p. 43; P. Jaffe, Drawings by George Romney, Cambridge, 1977). 

4     See, for example, J. Reynolds, Discourses on Art, vol. III, ed. R. Wark, New Haven, 1975, pp. 50–2. Here Reynolds describes the ‘grand style’ as art ‘with great ideas’ and portrait painting as ‘of not so great merit’. 

5     See M. Pointon, ‘Portrait Painting as a Business Enterprise in London in the 1780s’, Art History, vol. 7, 1984, pp. 187–203. 

6     For descriptions of Maria, see L. Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy by Mr Yorick (1768), London, 1968, pp. 113–17; and his The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–67), vol. IX, Oxford, 1983, pp. 522–3. 

7     C. M. Gordon, British Paintings of Subjects from English Novels 1740–1870, London, 1988, p. 263, notes that Romney made four paintings based on Tristram Shandy, in the period 1761–62; the whereabouts of these four works are now unknown. A. B. Chamberlain, George Romney, London, 1910, p. 79, suggests that Romney had read A Sentimental Journey and points out that, at the time of the artist’s sojourn on the Continent, Sterne’s novel was considered essential reading for all English travellers. 

8     See, for example, Gordon, pp. 72–7. Gordon also notes that images of Maria appeared on a great variety of sundry items; these included everyday objects such as watch-cases, but Maria was also featured on a Wedgwood cameo.

9     See B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, London, 1960, p. 7. 

10     For a discussion of the two painted versions of Maria and their relationship to Wright’s Rome sketches, see J. Egerton, Joseph Wright of Derby (exh. cat.), Tate Gallery, London, 1990, cat. nos 52, 58, reprs. 

11     Sterne, A Sentimental Journey, p. 114. 

12     ibid. 

13     Romney owned Le Brun’s Method to Learn to Design the Passions (London, 1734). For Le Brun’s work and its significance, see J. Montagu, The Expression of the Passions: The Origin and Influence of Charles Le Brun’s ‘Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière’, New Haven, 1994. 

14     Richard Payne Knight’s An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste was published in 1805; for Knight’s letters to Romney, see J. Romney, Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Romney, London, 1830. 

15     Richard Payne Knight, letter to George Romney, 24 November 1776, cited in Romney, p. 323. 

16     Knight letter, 24 November 1776, cited in Romney, p. 322. 

17     This sketch has been related by Patricia Milne Henderson to The Leigh family (see Burke, p. 12). Romney’s figure, if indeed it is Mrs Leigh, was altered for the painting. The artist also used this pose in various other portraits. 

18     See R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky & F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art, London, 1964. 

19     Much has been written about the notion of civic humanism in art (see, for example, D. Solkin, Painting for Money, New Haven, 1993, pp. 157–213; J. Barren, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: ‘The Body of the Public’, New Haven, 1986; R. Rosenblum, Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art, Princeton, 1967); for a broader treatment of significant changes that occurred in eighteenth-century aesthetic theory and practice, see M. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, New York, 1953; E. Tuveson, The Imagination as a Means of Grace, Berkeley, 1960. 

20     A. Gerard, An Essay on Taste, 1759, Menston, Yorkshire, 1971, p. 204. 

21     Samuel Richardson, letter to Lady Bradshaigh, 24 March 1751, in S. Richardson, Selected Letters, ed. J. Carroll, Oxford, 1964, p. 180. 

22     W. Hayley, The Life of George Romney, Esq., London, 1809, p. 55. 

23     George Romney, letter to William Hayley, February 1787, cited in Hayley, p. 55.