Designs from Fancy: George Romney's Shakespearean Drawings

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Designs from Fancy: George Romney's Shakespearean Drawings part of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened November 10, 1998 and closed March 20, 1999. The exhibition catalogue can be purchased from the Folger Shop.

George Romney (1734-1802) was one of the most successful English artists of the late eighteenth century. Born in the north of England, where he was apprenticed briefly to Christopher Steele, Romney was essentially self-taught. In 1762 he left his family behind in Kendal and moved to London to seek his fortune there. Hard-working and adept at capturing a flattering image of his sitters, Romney quickly established a lucrative practice as a portrait painter. He had a fierce ambition, however, to achieve fame in the more highly regarded art of history painting, a category that included subjects from literary, religious, and mythological sources as well as from history.

The Folger Shakespeare Library is fortunate to possess nearly 500 drawings by George Romney, the second largest collection of Romney drawings in America. The Folger collection has remained little known since very few of the drawings have ever been reproduced or exhibited—a situation this exhibition sought to address.

Romney has long received recognition as a major British artist of the eighteenth century, but his drawings have remained virtually unknown. In this country it is only during the past few decades that they have begun to be exhibited and studied. This exhibition offered a new opportunity to discover the appeal of George Romney's draftsmanship, their charm, and their distinctive personality.


  • 1734 December 26, born at Beckside near Dalton in Furness, Lancashire.
  • 1755 Apprenticed to Christopher Steele for four years.
  • 1756 October 14, marries Mary Abbot, the daughter of his landlady.
  • 1757 Leaves Steele after two years of working with the artist in York, Lancaster, and Kendal. Becomes his own master. April 6, birth of his son, John Romney, who would become his father's biographer.
  • 1762 Disposes of twenty paintings by lottery at the Kendal Town Hall. Departs for London on March 14.
  • 1763 First exhibits at the Free Society of Artists, which awards him twenty five guineas for his The death of General Wolfe. Continues to place works on exhibition at the Free Society until 1769.
  • 1764 Leaves in September, with his friend Thomas Greene, for a six week trip to Paris where he meets Joseph Vernet.
  • 1765 Receives a 50 guinea award from the Free Society for his The death of King Edmund. Visits family in the North. Romney's wife had, by this time, left Kendal to live with and look after Romney's father at Dalton. Spends much of his time while in the North painting portraits in Lancaster.
  • 1767 Again visits family and paints portraits in the North.
  • 1769 Exhibits for the last time at the Free Society.
  • 1770 His first exhibition at the Society of Artists (Mirth and Melancholy ).
  • 1772 Exhibits two portraits at the Society of Artists. Romney's last participation in regular public exhibitions.
  • 1773 March 20, departs for Rome with the painter Ozias Humphry; travels via Paris, Lyons, ad the south of France to Nice and Menton. From Menton, travels to Genoa and Leghorn, continuing on to Pisa, Florence, and Siena. Arrives in Rome on June 18.
  • 1775 Leaves Rome in earl January, spending time in various other Italian cities (Florence, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice, Parma) as well as Lyon and Paris, before arriving back in London on July 1. In late November, Romney takes over the lease on Francis Cotes's large house in Cavendish Square.
  • 1776 Meets the poet William Hayley, who becomes Romney's closest friend. Hayley initiates his yearly invitations to Romney to spend his summer holidays with him at Eartham, near the south coast. Annual visits occur for the next twenty years.
  • 1777 Romney joins other friends in forming the eight-member Unincreasables Club, which included the Shakespearean actor John Henderson.
  • 1778 Publication of Hayley's Poetical epistle to an eminent painter, addressed to Romney.
  • 1780 Henderson sits for Romney in October and December.
  • 1782 Emma Hart begins to sit regularly for Romney; does so until her departure for Naples in 1786.
  • 1786 Romney attends a dinner at the home of Josiah Boydell where the idea of a Shakespeare Gallery is discussed; by some accounts, it is initially proposed by Romney himself.
  • 1790 Romney's Tempest painting completed and sent to the Boydell Gallery in Pall Mall. At the end of July, Romney takes a six-week trip to France with Hayley and Thomas Carwardine. Death of the philanthropist John Howard stimulated Romney's interest in illustrating Howard's prison visits.
  • 1791 In September, Emma Hart becomes Lady Hamilton upon her marriage to Sir William. Emma sits a number of times for Romney while in London.
  • 1792 Romney's The infant Shakespeare attended by Nature and the Passions and Cassandra Raving are sent to the Boydell Gallery. Commissions John Flaxman to buy antique casts for him in Rome.
  • 1794 Romney's health begins to give way; he becomes increasingly melancholic.
  • 1796 Suffers the first of a series of strokes.
  • 1798 Visits the North of England with his son John during the summer. Suffers a slight stroke in the winter, experiences increasing debility.
  • 1799 Returns to the North for good where he is nursed by his wife.
  • 1802 November 15, Romney dies in Kendal.

Early Career

Neoclassical Phase

Shakespearean Subjects


Henry VI, part II

The Tempest

As You Like It

Interest in the Supernatural

Religious Subjects