George Romney rose from provincial obscurity in the north of England to become one of the most fashionable portrait painters in 18th-century London. The story of his remarkable rise to fame is a tale that illuminates the debates, concerns, and hopes of artists during a period of momentous change in the British art world.
This Sunday, Rienzi opens its fall exhibition, Visions of Fancy: George Romney, 18th-Century Paintings and Drawings. The show features portraits by the artist, including the first major painting loans to the house museum, as well a series of sketches and drawings. Along with the work of his contemporaries (and rivals), Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough among others in the collection, Romney’s compositions illustrate a grand apogee of English painting. The collection was carefully amassed by Rienzi’s benefactors, Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III, who held a particular fondness for Romney over a lifetime of collecting English paintings and decorative art.
A highlight of the show is a gallery devoted to the astonishing drawings by Romney, a rare collection of works on paper that have not previously been on view at the museum. The treasure of this collection is a sketchbook, from September 1783, which has been made digital for viewers to explore by touch screen. With a bold and assured hand, the artist shows the range of subjects that captured his imagination—figure studies, studies of expression and landscapes, as well as ideas for subject pictures that captivated him but rarely resulted in finished paintings. Seen in comparison to Romney’s grand society portraits from the same period, a remarkable dichotomy emerges for the viewer.
After Romney’s death, his only son, John, wrote a memoir describing the magic of his father’s artistry:
Oh Hours of past delight
Forever gone! When I beheld his hand
Visions of Fancy, as by magic wand.