Designs from Fancy: George Romney's Shakespearean Drawings

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

Romney needed to paint portraits to earn a living, but his bias is clear in his complaint: "This cursed portrait painting! How I am shackled with it! I am determined to live frugally, that I may enable myself to cut it short as soon as I am tolerably independent, and then give my mind up to those delightful regions of imagination."

That his attention shifted easily from portraits to historical subjects is demonstrated in one sketchbook drawing combining two separate images. The following call number shows a digital image of this sketch, ART Vol. c59 no.40. At the right is a portrait study of a seated woman in contemporary dress. Sharing the page at the left is a study of a woman rushing forward, with one arm raised and the other at her forehead. This is Cassandra Raving from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the subject of a painting Romney sent to the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. Emma Hart (Lady Hamilton) served as his model. You can view the entirety of this sketchbook in the Folger Digital image collection.

Neoclassical Phase

Romney's first historical painting was King Lear in the Tempest Tearing Off His Robes, painted before the artist left Kendal in 1762. It was one of twenty Romney sold by lottery to raise money for his move to London. Although Romney had rapidly become successful as a portrait painter, he abandoned his London practice in March of 1773 and traveled to Italy to study the works of antiquity and the Italian masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Drawings made during this, the most Neoclassical phase of Romney's career, reveal a careful academic approach and the impact of his study of classical art. Both during his stay in Italy and after his return to London in 1775, Romney depicted scenes from King Lear.

A large-scale black chalk head of Lear is one of the most carefully finished of Romney's drawings in the Folger collection and, as such, among the least characteristic. The following call number links to its digital image, ART Flat b5 no.6. Its complex modeling and strong contours give full three-dimensionality to the forms and reveal Romney at his closest approximation to the academic method. Lear's strong features and flowing hair convey something of the dynamism of Michelangelo's God from the Sistine Ceiling, while his tense expression has suggestions of that of the Laocoon, though here mental rather than physical agony is portrayed.

Exhibition highlight

The bearded King Lear is seen again in a large-scale composition drawing of the death of Cordelia, which can be seen in this LUNA Digital Image. Cordelia lies on the ground, her upper body supported by the kneeling Lear. The artist has followed closely the words Lear speaks:

Lend me a looking glass.

If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,

Why, then she lives. . . .

This feather stirs; she lives! (Act 5, scene 3, 261-63).

In the arm of the woman standing at the left, Romney's delicate line provides an ironic contrast to the bulky, shapeless mass of the arm itself with its distorted anatomy.

Shakespearean Subjects

Romney enjoyed the theater, and in the late 1770s he and other friends formed a small eight-member club called The Unincreasables. This group attended the theater together and met regularly to dine, discuss theatrical events, and hear readings of plays. One member was John Henderson (1747-1785) who, along with David Garrick, was among the most distinguished Shakespearean actors of the time. In addition to Henderson, Romney painted other actors and actresses such as Mrs. Yates, Mrs. Siddons, and Emma Hart. Romney depicted Hart as Titania, Joan of Arc, Cassandra, and Miranda.

When Hart departed for the Continent in 1786, he found comfort in beginning his sketches for the launching of Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. This project gave enormous impetus to the illustration of Shakespeare's plays and stands as the most important instance of patronage of history painting in eighteenth-century England. Between 1786 and 1792 the artist's creative energy was devoted primarily to working on designs for pictures for the Gallery.


The banquet scene from Macbeth was a subject that held Romney's interest over a period of years despite the fact that the unpopularity of his Tempest painting precluded his receiving a commission from Boydell for one on Macbeth. The following link shows several high-resolution images of these sketches from the the Folger's Digital image collection.

This series of sketches, from c1790-92, show Macbeth restrained by Lady Macbeth as he starts in amazement at Banquo's ghost hovering above the banquet table. These are not composition studies as such since Romney does not work with individual elements in a methodical way to achieve a definitive arrangement. Yet, as the sketches multiply, Romney applies an infinite range of graphic techniques to the treatment of individual forms. Each varying slightly, the sketches move before our eyes like stop frames in cinematic progression.

One of the sketches shows the figure of Macbeth alone which can be seen via the linked call number, ART Vol. c59 no.12. This powerful figure, legs spread wide and left arm raised in a commanding gesture, is slashed authoritatively on the page, its musculature emphasized by dark wedges of shadow.

Henry VI, part II

One of the subjects Romney intended to paint for the Boydell Gallery was "Margery Jourdain and Roger Bolingbroke Conjuring Up the Fiend" from Henry VI, Part II. Like many of Romney's ideas, however, the Bolingbroke episode never resulted in a completed painting.

In a powerful study of the Fiend, shown through this linked call number ART Flat b5 no.24, Romney adopts two distinctly different means for conveying emotion. Influenced by Charles LeBrun's Passions, with its diagrammatic treatments of facial expressions, Romney relies on traditional devices for depicting strong emotion: large eyes with much white showing, knitted brow, a wide, bow-shaped mouth with teeth exposed—visual cliches that appear often in his drawings. On the other hand, Romney's rendering of the fiend's hair departs entirely from physical description, however schematic that might be. Heavy, repeated diagonal strokes set off the Fiend's head with apotropaic emphasis. The vigor and freedom of Romney's graphic technique suggests his own emotional response to his subject. This drawing employs black chalk in a more abrupt and spontaneous fashion than does the head of King Lear, shown through this linked call number ART Flat b5 no.6, and dating from some ten years earlier.

The Tempest

As You Like It

Interest in the Supernatural

Religious Subjects