Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mrs Charles Hawkins and her children 1770s

George Romney (1734-1802)

Portrait of Mrs Charles Hawkins and her children, George Romney
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Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
 
Provenance:
presumably Thomas Truesdale Clarke (d.184o), of Swakeleys, Middlesex, the sitter’s husband, and by descent to; Thomas Bryan Clarke-Thornhill, of Swakeleys, Middlesex; Cyrus H.K. Curtis, Philadelphia; with the Newhouse Gallery, N
Literature:
Rev .J. Romney, Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Romney, London, 1830, p.141. G. Paston, George Romney, London, 1903, p.195. H. Ward and W. Roberts, Romney: A Biographical and Critical Essay, II, London, 1904, p.74 F. O’D
Exhibited:
Exhibited The Danville Museum of Fine Arts, British Paintings, 7th June – 7th July 1985.
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This portrait is one of the first family groups Romney painted after his trip to Rome in the mid 1770s. It provides an important benchmark of the change in style that arose from his exposure to continental art, and helps explain his sudden commercial and popular success. Numerous sittings are recorded in Romney’s diaries from July 1776 for Anne Hawkins, with further appointments for the two children as late as 1778. Anne Hawkins (neé Adair) was the first wife of Charles Hawkins, the Sergeant surgeon to George III. The two children have been identified as Caesar Hawkins (d. 1806), who became a captain in the 8th Light Dragoons, and Louisa Anne, in whose family this portrait descended.

Romney’s decision to abandon his comfortable studio practice and set out for Europe was unusual, and taken relatively late in his artistic career. Most aspiring artists undertook the Grand Tour as part of their initial training, and in 1773 Romney was well-known as a leading portraitist with an established clientele in London. However, Romney, when first emerging from Kendal in Cumbria with his broad north-country accent, had neither the means nor the contacts to spend the required number of years abroad as a studious young artist. He instead managed a brief three-week trip to Paris in 1764, and returned unimpressed with what he saw;

“degeneracy of taste runs through everything…. The ridiculous and fantastical are the only points they seem to aim at. …” (quoted in J. Romney, p. 50).

Romney’s disdain for the art of Boucher, Fragonard et al, and subsequent reliance on his own artistic development tells us something of the emergence of an independent English school of art in the mid eighteenth century. That Romney still felt obliged to return to Europe years later, at the age of thirty-eight, tells us even more.

Romney spent a year and a half in Italy, in which time he perfected a change in his technique that was subtle but transformative. On one level, the trip merely gave Romney the confidence to finally satisfy his artistic aspirations. He still painted in his essentially neo-classical style, with simple forms, long flowing contours and bold pigments. And of course the now eponymous ‘grand manner’ remained the dominant inspiration. But from 1775 onwards Romney’s portraits gained a further indefinable magic.

When in Rome, Romney noted in his sketchbook that he should henceforth, “attempt to paint with a fat pencil, be very careful to lay the colour on right and with good gusto.” This new approach, principally the result of studying Titian, translated into the spontaneity so vital for any artist of the first rank. It is demonstrated amply by the fresh bright colours and thick rapid brushstrokes present in the background of Mrs Hawkins. Gone are the overly dark backgrounds, and occasionally ponderous characterisations of Romney’s earlier works. He also became less dependent on the conceit of using highly contrasting back and foregrounds to help project the central subject. Romney, now more confident in his use of colour, was able to fill the whole canvas with his energy, and without any noticeable loss of impact. His pictures became noticeably warmer and more appealing.

This new approach evidently found favour with his rapidly growing clientele on his return to London, among whom were the Hawkins family. In November 1775 Romney took a lease on new premises in Cavendish Square. It was a financial gamble, but one which evidently paid off. In December 1776 the artist Josiah Green gave notice of Romney’s extraordinary new success, when he wrote;

“When I enter his [Romney’s] house I tremble with I know not what! I can scarcely believe my Eyes! such Pictures! and the pictures of such People! I am lost in wonder & astonishment how all these things should be, how so short a travel could give such excellence to his Pencil!... When I see his Shew room fill’d from Top to Bottom, his painting and Drawing room crowded with pictures of people of the first fashion and Fortune, I can scarce believe the transition…”

Romney was also more confident in his drawing and composition. Few of Romney’s earlier group portraits are as successful as the present example in terms of the subject’s intimate interaction. In ‘The Warren Family’ of 1768, for example, husband, wife and daughter all studiously ignore each other’s gaze. Pencil studies for the picture reveal that Romney experimented with numerous different compositions. The end result, although a successful demonstration of beauty and elegance, is certainly not a picture of a happy family. The Hawkins group, however, is a triumph of gentle family harmony. It is possible to imagine just such a scene in Romney’s studio, with Anne Hawkins looking patiently at the artist, while the two children amuse each other. It captures perfectly the genteel humanity of the world enjoyed by Romney’s patrons, and reveals why he was able to develop into one of Britain’s greatest artists.
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