"Designs From Fancy":
George Romney's Shakespearean Drawings

November 10, 1998, through March 20, 1999

Yvonne Romney Dixon, Guest Curator

George Romney (1734-1802) was one of the most successful English artists of the late eighteenth century. Born in the north of England, where he was apprenticed briefly to Christopher Steele, Romney was essentially self-taught. In 1762 he left his family behind in Kendal and moved to London to seek his fortune there. Hard-working and adept at capturing a flattering image of his sitters, Romney quickly established a lucrative practice as a portrait painter. He had a fierce ambition, however, to achieve fame in the more highly regarded art of history painting, a category that included subjects from literary, religious, and mythological sources as well as from history.

Romney turned often to the plays of William Shakespeare as a source of inspiration for the subject pictures he desired to paint. Always with "a sketchbook in his pocket," Romney produced a prodigious number of drawings on Shakespearean themes. While relatively few of his ideas culminated in finished paintings, the appeal of these preparatory drawings is strong. Not intended by the artist as works to be exhibited, the drawings nevertheless provide access to Romney's private world.

Most of the nearly 500 Romney drawings in the Folger collection are studies for subject pictures, although the collection also includes portrait studies, several of which are included in the exhibition. Cassandra/Portrait study

Cassandra/Portrait Study, 1790-92; pen with brown ink and wash

Romney needed to paint portraits to earn a living, but his bias is clear in his complaint: "This cursed portrait painting! How I am shackled with it! I am determined to live frugally, that I may enable myself to cut it short as soon as I am tolerably independent, and then give my mind up to those delightful regions of imagination." That his attention shifted easily from portraits to historical subjects is demonstrated in a sketchbook drawing combining two separate images. At the right is a portrait study of a seated woman in contemporary dress. Sharing the page at the left is a study of a woman rushing forward, with one arm raised and the other at her forehead. This is Cassandra Raving from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the subject of a painting Romney sent to the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. Emma Hart (Lady Hamilton) served as his model. Head of King Lear

King Lear: Head of Lear, c1773-75; black chalk

Romney's first historical painting was King Lear in the Tempest Tearing Off his Robes, painted before the artist left Kendal in 1762. It was one of twenty Romney sold by lottery to raise money for his move to London. Although Romney had rapidly become successful as a portrait painter, he abandoned his London practice in March of 1773 and traveled to Italy to study the works of antiquity and the Italian masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Drawings made during this, the most Neoclassical phase of Romney's career, reveal a careful academic approach and the impact of his study of classical art. Both during his stay in Italy and after his return to London in 1775, Romney depicted scenes from King Lear. A large-scale black chalk head of Lear is one of the most carefully finished of Romney's drawings in the Folger collection and, as such, among the least characteristic. Its complex modeling and strong contours give full three-dimensionality to the forms and reveal Romney at his closest approximation to the academic method. Lear's strong features and flowing hair convey something of the dynamism of Michelangelo's God from the Sistine Ceiling, while his tense expression has suggestions of that of the Laocoon, though here mental rather than physical agony is portrayed.

Death of Cordelia

King Lear: Death of Cordelia, c1775-77; pen with brown ink and grey wash over graphite

The bearded King Lear is seen again in a large-scale composition drawing of the death of Cordelia. Cordelia lies on the ground, her upper body supported by the kneeling Lear. The artist has followed closely the words Lear speaks: "Lend me a looking glass./If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,/Why, then she lives. . . ./This feather stirs; she lives!" (Act 5, scene 3, 261-63) In the arm of the woman standing at the left, Romney's delicate line provides an ironic contrast to the bulky, shapeless mass of the arm itself with its distorted anatomy. Macbeth et al w/ Three Witches on the Heath

Macbeth: Heath Scene; Macbeth and Banquo Confront the Three Witches, late 1770s; pen with dark brown ink and wash over graphite

Supernatural subjects such as witches claimed Romney's interest repeatedly when he turned to the plays of Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Macbeth encounters the witches twice, the first time on the heath in company with Banquo (Act I, scene 3). Witches issuing from the clouds confront the protagonists in a wash drawing of the heath scene. Later Romney used the heath scene as a vehicle for painting his friend John Henderson, the noted Shakespearean actor, in the role of Macbeth. Romney also made numerous drawings of the Cavern Scene from Macbeth (Act 4, scene 1) where, during his second encounter with the witches, Macbeth witnesses the procession of the eight kings. Miranda

The Tempest: Miranda, 1787-90; pen with grey ink and wash over graphite

The launching of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in 1786 was an important stimulus to Romney's depiction of Shakespearean themes. Between 1786 and 1792 his creative energies were largely devoted to designing pictures for the Gallery. The Tempest, completed in 1790, was the first of Romney's Boydell paintings and his most ambitious historical commission. Romney originally planned to depict Prospero and Miranda in a wide landscape viewing the storm, but he altered his conception to combine a closeup view of these two figures along with a view of the shipwreck. Crowded with figures poorly integrated into the composition, the completed painting was unsuccessful and unpopular. Romney's favorite model, Emma Hart, provided the inspiration for his depiction of Miranda, as seen in a large-scale drawing in the collection.

Study of the Fiend's head

Henry VI, Part II: Study of the Fiend's Head, c1787-90; black chalk over traces of graphite

One of the subjects Romney intended to paint for the Boydell Gallery was "Margery Jourdain and Roger Bolingbroke Conjuring Up the Fiend" from Henry VI, Part II. Like many of Romney's ideas, however, the Bolingbroke episode never resulted in a completed painting. In a powerful study of the Fiend, Romney adopts two distinctly different means for conveying emotion. Influenced by Charles LeBrun's Passions, with its diagrammatic treatments of facial expressions, Romney relies here on traditional devices for depicting strong emotion: large eyes with much white showing, knitted brow, a wide, bow-shaped mouth with teeth exposed--visual cliches that appear often in his drawings. On the other hand, Romney's rendering of the fiend's hair departs entirely from physical description, however schematic that might be. Heavy, repeated diagonal strokes set off the Fiend's head with apotropaic emphasis. The vigor and freedom of Romney's graphic technique suggests his own emotional response to his subject. This drawing employs black chalk in a more abrupt and spontaneous fashion than does the head of King Lear dating from some ten years earlier. Macbeth:Banquet Scene

Macbeth: Banquet Scene,(left) and Figure of Macbeth(below), 1790-92; pen with brown ink and wash

The banquet scene from Macbeth was a subject that held Romney's interest over a period of years despite the fact that the unpopularity of his Tempest painting precluded his receiving a commission from Boydell for one on Macbeth. A series of sketches from c1790-92 show Macbeth restrained by Lady Macbeth as he starts in amazement at Banquo's ghost hovering above the banquet table. These are not composition studies as such since Romney does not work with individual elements in a methodical way to achieve a definitive arrangement. Yet, as the sketches multiply, Romney applies an infinite range of graphic techniques to the treatment of individual forms. Each varying slightly, the sketches move before our eyes like stop frames in cinematic progression. One of the sketches shows the figure of Macbeth alone. This powerful figure, legs spread wide and left arm raised in a commanding gesture, is slashed authoritatively on the page, its musculature emphasized by dark wedges of shadow.

Figure of Macbeth

Toward the end of 1793, Romney began work on his last major subject inspired by lines from Shakespeare, the "Ages of Man" as described by Jaques in As You Like It. Most of the Folger drawings on the theme depict the first stage of life, that of the infant. Romney did not limit himself to Shakespeare's description of the babe "mewling and puking in the nurse's arms," but added his own images to those of the poet, including in the scene additional figures standing and kneeling, and the mother reclining on a couch behind.

Birth of Man

The Seven Ages of Man: The Birth of Man, c1793-94; graphite

Romney's graphic technique at this period was marked by the use of different materials and media. The paper he used in the 1790s, but not before, is a relatively heavy and smooth, cream-colored wove paper, quite different from the laid paper used earlier. His favorite medium was a softer graphite than he had used previously. The resulting style in these drawings is markedly different from that of Romney's earlier work. Darkness pervades the scenes, which are usually framed within a rectangle marked out on the page. Thick parallel strokes are laid on diagonally and belabored obsessively. Patches of shading consist of directional systems at war with one another, creating areas of tone that collide in a jarring manner. Figures register as white holes on the page. On the verge of being totally swallowed up, these figures but tenuously hold their own against the vigorous assault of the encroaching lines.

Mater Dolorosa, 1776; brush with brown wash over graphite
Mater Dolorosa, 1776; pen with brown ink

Mater Dolorosa Mater Dolorosa

The majority of the Romney drawings in the Folger Library are of Shakespearean subjects, but some originally identified as Shakespearean are now known to deal with a variety of other topics. Two examples are drawings of the Mater Dolorosa (Mourning Mother), a subject Romney had been commissioned to paint in 1776 as an altarpiece for King's College, Cambridge. The commission was never completed since an Italian painting thought to be by Daniele da Volterra was placed in the chapel instead. Meanwhile, however, Romney had executed many drawings in response to the commission. Always inspired to make multiple studies for a particular subject even when a small number might suffice, Romney here employs vividly contrasting techniques in depicting the same image. The first drawing is executed entirely in thick ribbons of wash applied over a light graphite sketch. The second is a liltingly calligraphic pen and ink study. Although the technical methods differ radically, the pose of the figures in the two drawings is identical. Like many others in the exhibition, these drawings illustrate a characteristic feature of Romney's draftsmanship: the astonishing range of his graphic techniques. In their great variety of technical methods and in their emotional force, it is Romney's drawings that speak most directly to the modern viewer.

This page updated 4/22/99