The eighteenth-century British portrait painter George Romney longed to make a name for himself in the more highly regarded field of history painting, a genre that includes literary scenes as well as actual past events. In between portrait sittings, he produced vast numbers of sketches for his planned paintings, only some of which were ever created. The Folger possesses the second-largest collection of these Romney drawings in America and the third-largest in the world, many on Shakespearean subjects.
Romney’s sketches evolved over time from highly controlled studies to free flowing lines. This study of King Lear dates from about 1773, toward the beginning of that change, with classical, academic shading that carefully indicates the shape of the face, recalling ancient Roman sculpture. It recalls the storm scene from the play, which includes these lines by Lear:
Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drowned the cocks.
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head.
Throughout his life, Romney returned again and again to Lear, who had been the subject of Romney's first history painting in 1762 and would be the subject of his last attempt at a picture in 1798.