Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Head of Miranda (Emma Hamilton), late 1780s 

George Romney (1734-1802)

Head of Miranda (Emma Hamilton), late 1780s, George Romney
Oil on canvas
18th Century
16 x 13 ins., 40.6cm x 33cm (sight size)
Reputedly ‘Lady Lane’, by whom gifted; Lucy Maund (née Illingsworth) (b.1813); John Oakley Maund (d.1902); His widow; Zoe Oakley Maund, (later Lady Caillard) (1868-1935), by 1904; Sir Albert James Bennet, Bt.; Sale, American Art Association, New York, 16 November 1933, lot 4 (Bought-in); By family descent.
H. Ward and W. Roberts, George Romney, A Catalogue Raisonné of his Works (London & New York 1904), Vol. II, No. 18g, p.184 J. Frankau, The Story of Emma, Lady Hamilton (London, 1911), Vol. II, P.99 R. Dorment, British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, 1986), no.7, p.326 A. Kidson, George Romney: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, (New Haven and London, 2015), no.1736oooo, p.792
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Essay by Alex Kidson:

This Miranda is one of a number of known versions of the same auburn-haired girl in a pink tunic turned to the right that Romney painted in the third quarter of the 1780s, as studies for an intended picture on the subject of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This would eventually become his grandest history painting: a 15-foot wide condensation of the opening scenes of the play that most fully embodied his aspirations as a painter of the imagination.

Miranda is the central female figure in The Tempest. Banished at the age of three along with her father Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, and their deformed slave Caliban, she has grown up, when the play begins, cut off from the real world on a remote, magical island: a seed-bed environment calculated to shape her as an embodiment of pure femininity. Innocent, virtuous and modest, she is unaware that she is the daughter of a head of state; instead, as the only female character to appear on stage in the play, she acts as a foil to each of its contrasted types of masculinity. John Romney, the artist’s son, would later write in his Memoirs of George Romney that The Tempest was one of his father’s three favourite Shakespeare plays – along with Macbeth and King Lear. This seems to be a pious assumption, based on the amount of energy Romney devoted to his Tempest picture. In fact, there is no evidence that Romney had studied the play before early 1786, when three separate factors led him to begin planning a painting devoted to the relationship between Prospero, Miranda and Caliban on Prospero’s island.

The first of Romney’s triggers was the publication in March 1786 of an engraving by John Jones – at this time his preferred printmaker – after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s full-length portrait The Honourable Mrs Tollemache as Miranda. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1774 (a year when Romney was in Italy) Reynolds’s painting depicted Miranda transfixed, in the second scene of the play, by her first glimpse of her future husband Ferdinand. The work was a marriage portrait, not a theatrical one, and Reynolds’s intention was doubtless to pay a typically witty compliment to his patron, the sitter’s new husband. But Reynolds did introduce the figures of Prospero and Caliban, and depicted Ferdinand’s ship wrecked in the background, which gave the painting a strong historical flavour. That Romney’s first ideas for a Tempest picture replicated these features makes it overwhelmingly likely that Jones’s print left on him a strong impression.

Romney’s second trigger was the imminent departure of his muse, Emma Hart, for Italy. He had for some time been a party to the scheme whereby, to save money, his patron Charles Greville proposed to send Emma, his mistress, to live with his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British resident in Naples. Over the previous three years Emma had sat to Romney in a succession of literary and allegorical roles and in painting her he had greatly strengthened his confidence in tackling such themes. As the day for her departure grew close, it would have been only natural for him to have wanted to paint her in a final role that encapsulated her private, personal relevance to him. Talking about these ideas with his best friend and literary adviser, the poet William Hayley – the third trigger – gave them shape. There is independent circumstantial evidence that Hayley himself was studying The Tempest in 1786 – and there is no doubt that he offered Romney crucial moral support and backing when in November of that year the painter gave the print publisher John Boydell the germ of the idea that would become the celebrated Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. With this development, Romney’s Tempest project would move into new channels and his ideas for the composition would be transformed. But by then his first ideas for a picture, as John Romney reports, were already well advanced.

Before Emma left London for Naples in the spring of 1786, Romney had time to make one of his characteristic life studies of her personifying Miranda (Private Collection, U.K., on loan to Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal). This vibrant oil sketch shows her in near profile to the right, gazing heavenward, in a white shift and with unkempt red hear billowing around her face. In conjunction with that work Romney made two initial composition studies in graphite and wash (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Both of them featured the three figures of Miranda, Prospero and Caliban on the beach of the island at the height of the storm, with the wrecked ship in the background, and in both drawings the figure of Miranda is turned to the right, her pose closely conforming to the oil sketch. The poses of Prospero and Caliban are varied – still up for grabs – but despite the rapidity of the drawings’ technique, the viewer is left in no doubt that Caliban is meant for Romney, who in one study is posed in a leering crouch behind the curving figure of Miranda that leaves little to the imagination: a moment of characteristic existential honesty on the artist’s part (even if exaggerated or part ironic) that opens vistas into the world of private meanings that underpinned the creation of the work.

In the later stages of his studies for his Tempest picture, from the summer of 1787 onwards, Romney altered the pose of Miranda, placing her at the far right-hand edge of a new multi-figure composition, now specifically conceived in historical and not personal vein for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, and turning her figure to the left. Over the next few years many more oil sketches for the head of Miranda to the left, loosely varied, would be carried out (so many, in fact, that it is valid to question their purpose and even in some cases their authorship; it is almost as if some of these canvases were created for casual visitors to Romney’s studio to buy as souvenirs). But in the months before the decisive moment in 1787 where Romney reversed the figure of Miranda, he continued to make studies of her facing to the right, both in drawings and in oils – and the present sketch is one of these.

Comparison between this canvas and the ‘original’ sketch of Emma herself is revealing. The facial features are not quite the same, confirming the supposition that it was carried out after Emma had left for Italy and that either it was painted from memory (far from impossible; Romney certainly made other Emmas from memory) or else from another model selected for her resemblance to Emma, perhaps with her features tweaked towards a more generalised ideal. Although the body position is the same, the face is now turned more to the viewer and the expression is less exalted, more alarmed, as though by the violence of the storm. This pose appears to relate to a specific graphite study of the two figures of Miranda and Prospero (Folger Shakespeare Library) in which Miranda, her body turned to the right but her face seen front-on, reaches with her right arm to cling to her father in fear. Again, despite the rapidity of the sketch, Miranda’s physiognomy is caught and bears a strong resemblance to the present model. Finally, in this oil sketch Miranda’s drapery is no longer white but pink. Pinkish red – with its connotations of physicality and passion, was a favourite colour for Romney in his depictions of Emma and in the finished Boydell painting Miranda was dressed in red.

Of equal interest are the subtle differences between this canvas and the two other known studies of the same head. Of the three, the present one is the most highly finished, with the expression of worry or fear more developed and subtle than in the others. Recent conversation has revealed that Romney used a piece of canvas that was slightly irregularly shaped (it was later squared off by another artist through the insertion of small triangular slivers of canvas) and it may have been because he felt cramped for room in the bottom right corner that he altered the pose of the right arm, whose original ‘reaching out’ position is still faintly visible as a pentiment. In working out this problem, Romney exposed Miranda’s shoulder and gave more careful attention to the folds of the drapery: changes which give this sketch a different, more mature and classical character, than the other two.

Despite the fact that Emma had left London before most of Romney’s work on the Tempest painting was done, contemporaries were encouraged to make the association. A newspaper report of the contents of Romney’s painting room in the summer of 1787 preferred to refer to one of his oil sketches not as Miranda but as ‘Mrs Hart… with the loose hair and the uplifted eye’. Her central role as the presiding genius of Romney’s inspiration – and thus, it might be argued, for the whole Boydell enterprise – was always recognised, and her association with the role of Miranda to this day forms a significant component in the reception history of one of Shakespeare’s most universal characters.
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