This delightful sketch, produced when the artist was at the height of his powers, depicts his favourite model and muse, Lady Emma Hamilton, one of the most famous beauties of eighteenth-century England.
Emma was born Amy Lyon on 26 April in 1765. The daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith, she moved to London in her early teens to make her fortune. It is thought that she worked as an actress's maid and as a 'living illustration' at Dr Graham's 'Temple of Health' in Pall Mall, but soon her extraordinary charm and beauty attracted a string of distinguished lovers. She was taken up and then abandoned when she fell pregnant by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh of Uppark in Sussex, only to fall into the arms of the Hon. Charles Greville, who installed her as his mistress, now called 'Mrs Emma Hart', in a modest house in Paddington Green. It was Greville who introduced his sixteen year-old protégée to Romney, with the idea of commissioning a series of pictures of Emma to sell upon the open market. Romney, at the time, was 'in great vogue' according to Horace Walpole, and had become the third most important portrait painter in London after Reynolds and Gainsborough (H. Gatty, 'Notes by Horace Walpole', Walpole Society, xxvii (1938-9), pp.76-7). From their first meeting in 1782 Romney was captivated by the delightful girl, later describing her as 'the divine lady superior to all womankind' (letter, 19 June 1791). Romney, since visiting France and Italy in the 1760s and 70s, was ambitious to succeed as a history painter and Emma became his muse, inspiring over sixty paintings depicting her in a variety of mythological and allegorical guises. These 'fancy pictures', as they became known, were frequently copied and are the works for which Romney is best remembered today.
The present sketch is a prime example of Romney's response to Emma's youthful beauty and good looks. Romney was noted for the rapidity of his handling in paint and here we can admire the manner in which the artist has captured the impression of the face in a few telling brushstrokes (W. Hayley, The Life of George Romney, Esq., London, 1809, pp. 323-4 and J. Romney, Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Romney, London, 1830, p. 165). Romney was particularly sensitive to the surface qualities of skin and hair as we can see in Emma's delicately upturned face, with its rosy cheeks and mouth, emerging from the swirl of her famous chestnut tresses, captured in a few bravura brushstrokes of fluid paint. Her expression is at once timid and beseeching, recalling Romney's admiration for the pathetic and the terrible, and the sitter's famous ability to convey a wide range of emotional expressions, which later led to her creation of her Attitudes, a series of tableaux vivants which Goethe described seeing in Naples: 'so much variety to her poses, gestures, expressions etc., that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes. He sees what thousands of artists would have liked to express realised before him in movements and surprising transformations - standing, kneeling, sitting, reclining, serious, sad, playful, ecstatic, contrite, alluring, threatening, anxious, one pose follows another without a break' (see R. Dorment, op. cit., p. 324).
Although modest in scale the focus on expression here reveals Romney's serious artistic ambitions, for expression provided the foundation of drama and narrative in history painting. In this, Romney's sketch of Emma Hamilton may be compared with the expressive heads of his French contemporary, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). Despite Romney's earlier condemnation of the 'degeneracy of taste' in French art, he obviously admired the work of Greuze, with whom he dined in Paris in July 1790. Romney's sketch shares something of the contradictory yet irresistible combination of sexual innocence and emotional depth displayed by Greuze's expressive heads of the same period. Both artists' works of this type are imbued with the Rousseauesque cult of Sensibility, which prefigured the emotionalism of the Romantic Movement in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
The present picture is one of a large number of sketches and drawings associated with Romney's most ambitious historical work, The Tempest, painted for Boydell's celebrated Shakespeare Gallery (see R. Dorment, op. cit., pp. 320-5). Emma Hamilton provided the model for the figure of Miranda at the moment she begs her father, Prospero, with upturned face as seen in the sketch, to spare the lives of the sailors shipwrecked on their island. The final canvas, the largest Romney ever painted, was destroyed in the 1950s; only a few heavily restored fragments and a copy after the composition survive (fig. 1). The idea was first discussed at a dinner party in Romney's house in Cavendish Square in 1786, but ironically Romney was to lose his muse at precisely the moment he most had need of her, for the same year she was packed off by the impecunious Greville to live with his kindly bachelor uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who promptly fell in love with her and married her. Emma's subsequent fate entered the realms of national history as, in the guise of Lady Hamilton, she captured the heart of Horatio Nelson, the future Vice-Admiral, Viscount Nelson. Meanwhile Romney toiled away at his picture for four years, twice reducing the number of portrait sittings he did during the period in order to concentrate on the canvas. When the picture was finally exhibited it proved a great disappointment to the critics, on account of its laboured, unwieldy composition. It was a bitter blow for Romney whose 'heart and soul were engaged in the pursuit of historical and ideal painting', according to the draughtsman John Flaxman. Although the sketches and drawings demonstrate the incredible fecundity of his ideas on the subject, Romney was ultimately unable to knit them together in a convincing dramatic whole.
The associated head studies of Emma Hamilton, in contrast, were highly popular. At least twelve are recorded, of which four were engraved. It is here, where nature and art collided in the dramatic talent of muse and bravura technique of artist, that Romney's unique talent may best be appreciated.