Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Miss Margaret Casson 1781

George Romney (1734-1802)

Miss Margaret Casson, George Romney
Oil on canvas
18th Century
36 x 28 inches 91.8 x 71.4 cm
By descent in the family of the sitter to Mrs FR Davies 1922; Bt from Leggatt Bros 1925 (label verso); Lord Dulverton collection Batsford Park, Gloucestershire; Private Collection.
Humphrey Ward and William Roberts Romney London 1904 Vol I p.95 Vol II p.27 BLK Henderson George Romney London 1922 pp. xii, 34, 35(ill.)
Art Treasures of the West Country Bristol May 25th – July 10th 1937 no 141 (ill.) label verso
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Romney’s child portraits are among the most successful and perceptive of his paintings. They achieve a degree of psychological acuity that frequently places them beyond the scope of, say, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in suggesting not only the character of children as adults perceive them but as persons with a hidden inner life. Of all the great eighteenth century portraitists Romney is most able to elucidate the mystery of childhood. Adult sitters invariably present a version of their public face even in a supposedly private portrait; children, however, as Romney realised, achieve their full potential as subjects when the preconceptions of maturity are not imposed upon them.

This portrait of the young musical prodigy Margaret Casson shows Romney’s intuitive powers to the full, and the sense of communion between child and instrument conjures the young composer’s personality with a peculiar intensity. Her distracted toying with the keyboard of an early square piano – one of the first appearances of this instrument in British art – causes the picture to echo to the sound of the note she has just played. Romney’s truth to life is the key by which he unlocks his sitter’s personalities, and the piano in the painting is clearly no studio prop but a much-loved instrument, which descended with the portrait in Miss Casson’s family into the twentieth century. In the painting it serves to amplify the sitter’s personality, but to lend a geometrical elegance to the composition, and provides a recession into the picture plane.

Margaret Casson sat to Romney four times for this portrait in 1781, on March 15th and then on April 19th, 21st and 22nd. Romney usually demanded a considerable number of sittings from his clients, and it may be that four was the maximum he could expect from child subjects. Casson composed several pieces, of which the most successful, The Cuckoo, was clearly known into the late nineteenth century, and alleged to have been plagiarised by WS Gilbert for an air in The Gondoliers, despite Gilbert’s vehement denials. The portrait passed into the possession of Mrs FR Davies by 1922, where it was recognised by the art-historian SC Kaines-Smith, editor of the British Artists series. The newly discovered masterpiece was first illustrated in the volume devoted to Romney, where in the foreword Kaines-Smith appreciated Romney’s apparent artlessness in portraying such simple subjects. His words are worth quoting even though they do to little honour to Romney’s rivals and give too little credit to a subject whose intellect Romney has suggested so sharply:

‘A Reynolds would have looked like a Field-Marshal in a sentry box; a Gainsborough like a court lady in a country lane. But Miss Casson looked like what she was, a little girl at home.’1

1. BLK Henderson George Romney London 1922 pp. xii
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