One child collects water from a fountain. Another holds a lamb in her arms. Both inhabit a pastoral world of innocence. Many of those who sat to Romney for their portraits were transported to this Arcadian setting, while the artist played with the realationship between a classical ideal and contemporary fashion, between the indiviuality of his sitter and the generality of the pastoral idea. These tensions are latent in the portrait of 'The Misses Hill' which Romney painted circa 1778-80, and for which the present drawing is a study.
The finished oil painting (private collection) was sold Christie's, London 1807 and exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, February-April 2002. The identity of the two girls is by no means certain. They were first named as the Misses Hill in 1807, after Romney's death, presumably by John Romney. There is much evidence to support the claim, however, as two Misses Hill are recorded as having sat for Romney fourteen times between April 1778 and March 1779, and the artist's account book states that the portrait was commissioned by a Mr Hill. For a full discussion of the various candidates for the Misses Hill see A. Kidson, (loc. cit.), 2002.
Romney's work tends towards two extremes, with his elegant and highly finished portraits contrasting with his spontaneous and fiercely imaginative drawings of literary and historical subjects. His sketches for portraits negotiate between these two poles. The present drawing has all the drama and lyricism which make his late historical compositions so intensely engaging. Some of the spontaneity of the present drawing is retained in the finished oil, where broad brushstrokes stress the fluidity of line in the girls' figures. Their faces, however, are rendered with great precision and the standing child raises her eyes to meet those of the viewer, something she does not do in the sketch. Romney often tried reversing compositions and the oil shows the girl kneeling to the right rather than to the left.