George Romney was born in 1734 in Dalton-in-Furness, a small town near the scenic Lake District in the northwestern part of England. He was one of 11 children born to Anne Romney and her furniture-maker husband, John. At the age of 10, George was removed from school to apprentice to his father. Although he would later teach himself the history, drama, poetry, and classical literature considered necessary as artistic sources, his technical training as an artist began when he was apprenticed in 1755 to the portrait painter Christopher Steele. As seen in a pair of rare early portraits from this period, William and Millicent Watson, Romney developed a feel for color and well-observed costume from his master, but he had yet to develop the sophistication of his more celebrated work.
In 1756, while still working for Steele, Romney married Molly Abbot, the daughter of his landlord (who was pregnant with his child at the time). Ill at ease with his marriage and settled domestic state, he abandoned his family in 1762 and headed to London seeking fortune and artistic fame. Although he arrived in the city with no patron and few prospects, he began to paint grand paintings of historical subjects. Romney submitted for his first major exhibition, a painting of the death of British General James Wolfe at the hands of the French during the Battle of Quebec in 1759. Originally awarded a prize, Romney was devastated when the award was rescinded. (Sadly, Romney’s painting has long been lost. Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, 1770, is the most well known image on the subject, and might well have been inspired by our slighted Romney’s.)
For the next nine years, Romney continued to incorporate classical references in his portraits with increasing success. By 1773, he had become one of London’s most prominent society portraitists even though he had not been elected as a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, the premier institution for exhibiting and promoting contemporary art. His lack of membership to the Academy was due in part to Sir Joshua Reynolds, its first president and his great adversary, as well as Romney’s own refusal to publicly exhibit his work. In spite of this circumstance, Romney received large numbers of commissions and his practice prospered.