Romney’s sketchy Shakespeare (and Milton)
By MICHAEL CAINES
Thomas Chatterton wasn't the only young man struggling to make a living in London in the 1760s. The painter George Romney was likewise trying to make his mark and not getting very far. Eventually, his determination paid off, however, and in later years he had to adapt his working methods in order to keep up with the demand for portraits. These were lucrative labours that came at a high personal cost: as time went on, his health suffered and he found it difficult to carry out his schemes for paintings on a grander scale, on historical and literary themes. Such ambitions mattered deeply in the art world of the time. As Norma Clarke put it in the TLS: "It is a commonplace that history painting was vaunted as the most elevated pictorial endeavour, but it might be more accurate to say that it consolidated the mythical stories the nation was telling itself".
The sketch above is one in a sequence from the early 1790s that testifies to Romney's passion for Shakespeare: it depicts the banquet scene from the third act of Macbeth (the one with Banquo's gatecrashing ghost). It also stands in, intriguingly, for the implicit finished painting itself, which Romney was never to execute . . . .
Romney's Macbeth sequence appears in the first of three sketchbooks recently put on show at Abbott and Holder, alongside his artistic ruminations on comparably elevated themes: 14 by 23 cm scenes from Paradise Lost; "The Effects of Envy and Pride for Want of Faith"; "A Shipwreck at the Cape of Good Hope"; and so on. Pretty much all of the drawings have now been sold; the first sketchbook, containing Shakespeare and Milton, going to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where it will find a good home alongside similar curiosities (such as Romney's depiction of those Scottish witches in their cave). Londoners and London-bound folk can still see these "heroic drawings" at Abbott and Holder's gallery, though, if they go by March 26, and there is also this excellent online gallery for all to visit.
As the accompanying catalogue explains, Romney's banquet scene was intended as a contribution to the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, which had opened in May 1789. This unprecedented project was supposed to create an "English School of Historical Painting", as well as enrich the publisher John Boydell, who proposed to produce prints of the paintings in the gallery as well as an illustrated edition of Shakespeare's Works. (There's a review by Claude Rawson in last week's TLS, as it happens, that gives some necessary context for the late eighteenth century's Bard fixation.)
Romney provided an allegorical vision of "The Infant Shakespeare attended by Nature and the Passions" ("Very Corregiesque", he judged it to be) and, with some difficulty, a grand view of Prospero and the shipwreck from the beginning of The Tempest, which is now lost but entirely mourned:
He also seems to have taken offence when Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West were offered the highest possible fees and he wasn't. He had spent "over twenty-five years in creative engagement with King Lear and Macbeth", the art historian Alex Kidson has written, but offered the gallery only an elegant portrait of the young Emma Hart – the favourite model later better known as Nelson's mistress Lady Hamilton – as Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida. She is also, perhaps, the model for his Miranda, given his earlier (and more effective) little portrait of her in the role.
It is exciting to imagine that, rejecting the Reynolds-led orthodoxy, Romney's Macbeth banquet scene would have looked more like his bold "Titania and Her Attendants", one of a number he based on A Midsummer Night's Dream; this one has the Northern Lights in the background and notably seems to conform to the idea he put forward for such pictures: that they should resemble "a momentary impulse or impression in the Mind". The sketches convey a similar energy and spontaneity, although they also seem to represent another pronouncement of his: that a finished picture might be "heated and fermented long in the mind and varied every possible way to make the whole perfect". The final impression of spontaneity might be only that – an impression. Some thought that "Titania" was left unfinished, but the Folger also owns a preparatory sketchbook dedicated to it that contradicts that notion. There is further evidence for his literary interests and experimental tendencies in this essay by Jennifer Jones-O'Neill about another sketchbook in the National Gallery of Victoria.
I suppose there's also some continuity between the scenes Romney chooses from Shakespeare and Milton – here's one of his sketches of "Ithuriel and Zephon finding Satan at the Ear of Eve", from Book IV of Paradise Lost (which could also be compared with his much earlier "Ghost of Darius appearing to Atossa", inspired by Aeschylus' tragedy The Persians):
"So started up in his own shape the Fiend. / Back stept those two fair Angels half amaz'd . . .": it's easy to see why this subject should have likewise appealed to Henry Fuseli.
His problems over the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery aside, there is this interesting, darker side to Romney's imagination that sets him apart from his fellow society painters. Kidson calls him "by temperament one of the first great modernists in British art". In 2002, the bicentenary of his death, a TLS reviewer could call him "underrated" – is he still to be found lingering in Reynolds's vainglorious shadow?