Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self portrait in a red coat 1760c.

George Romney (1734-1802)

Self portrait in a red coat, George Romney
Oil on canvas
18th Century
23 x 19 inches 58.4 x 48.2 cm
Dr J.N. Haynes; His sale Christies May 13th 1899 - Lot 47 Bt Agnews £231; Mrs W.H. Burns (d.1919) North Mymms Park, Hertfordshire; Christie’s June 11th 2004 (lot 27).
H. Ward and W. Roberts Romney, A Biographical and Crtical Essay with a Catalogue Raisonne of his Works London and New York 1904 p.134 no.7
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Conservation has established this self-portrait to be among the more remarkable and impressive of Romney’s works. The removal of large areas of later overpaint, which had been employed to complete the background and the sitter’s coat, revealed a dynamic sketch, crackling with Romney’s typical rapid, energetic brushwork and achieving a comparable psychological intensity and acuity to that which the painter achieves in the later Self-portrait (National Portrait Gallery, London). The painter depicts himself in a peaked, powdered wig and red coat, looking directly out of the canvas with an intent but almost wry expression. The likeness does not directly suggest the disillusion or the melancholic introspection that is so manifest in the large National Portrait Gallery painting, but speaks eloquently of Romney’s mind at the moment in his career when it was painted. The likeness is closest of any in the self-portraits to suggesting the wit and urbanity that were essential tools of the society portraitist, just as the wig implies the equally elegant appearance that was necessary for a painter who intended to maintain an aristocratic clientele. The 1770s saw Romney’s burgeoning career as a portraitist, especially as a portraitist of women, achieve greater and greater successes, and this self-portrait is a fascinating glimpse of the man and a suggestion of the manner that would entertain his subjects, so that they might be at their most expressive and revealing for their sitting.

Like many of Romney’s sketches, especially those which were probably never intended to be brought to completion, the creative process, the means by which the image is constructed on the canvas, is itself part of the study. As with the later Emma Hart as Circe (Tate Britain) the sitter’s face emerges from a storm of strokes and dashes, which so
powerfully suggest the fury of inspiration. As with the oil sketches of Sir Thomas Lawrence, the most dynamic of Romney’s sketches give the impression that the painter saw the subject in the blank canvas and set about revealing it by brushwork rather than constructing it. Through the 1770s this would appear to the painter’s method in most instances, and the likenesses of his sitters are laid as here in fluid, liquid paint without drawing. More than with many other portrait painters of the eighteenth century, the self-portraits of George Romney provide a key to the psychology of the subject. It is perhaps not difficult to understand the antipathy between Sir Joshua Reynolds and Romney simply from considering their very different essays in this genre. To Romney, Reynolds the assured, clubbable leader of the artistic establishment may have seemed a contrived and perhaps unoriginal artist. The technical brilliance and invention of Reynolds does not conceal the fact that his portraiture – as satirised by Nathaniel Hone in The Conjurer (Tate Britain) – frequently relied upon the use of poses and motifs borrowed from other painters and sculptors, and served a manifesto whose aim was to bring British painting more fully into the family and within the limits of earlier Old Master painting in the Grand Manner, in short to make British portraiture culturally respectable. In his self-portraits, it is very seldom that Reynolds is not wearing a mask of some kind, achieving an effect that is Rembrandtesque less through a preoccupation with ruthless self-analysis, than through a self-conscious emulation of Rembrandt. Romney’s nature by contrast is to strain at the leash of face-painting, to penetrate the mannered mask of polite society, although this by necessity could be effected less on his clients than on himself and his more unorthodox models. His interest in the expression of the more bizarre and irrational aspects of the human psyche comes to the fore not only in the self-portraits, but in his treatment of muses such as Emma Hart and in his literary subjects. It is possible that the painter was interested in the subject of King Lear, for example, as early as c.1762, from the evidence of a drawing for Lear’s head (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) blown by the winds of the storm, and throughout his career he continued to mine Shakespeare for subjects that afforded an opportunity for fantastic and visionary subjects. The Tempest, for example, allowed him to create a vast canvas of the mariners’ shipwreck, presided over by Prospero, whose surviving oil sketch is a nightmarish vortex of human suffering.

Romney’s self portraits are, therefore, an opportunity to conduct upon himself the uncompromising, probing study of character that he could not inflict upon his clients. It is no surprise that the portrait of the legendary madman the Hon Edward Wortley Montagu (Private Collection) - the only painting that Romney is known to have painted during his trip to Italy in 1773 – 1775 - is such an honest and compassionate study in delusion. Only in the self-portraits could be so candid again with his sitter’s emotions.

The present portrait suggests the contained confidence of a young man at the inception of his career, more specifically, at the point that he recognised it was to be successful. The progression to the disillusioned and reclusive figure, arms folded in retreat from the world in the National Portrait Gallery sketch is the progression of Romney’s own emotional disturbance. The portrait of the artist by Sir Martin Archer Shee painted towards the end of his life turns morbid introspection into a Michelangelesque terribilità, but beneath the rhetoric there is the same glimpse of a man preoccupied with the irrational, Dionysian aspect of art and humanity that the theorists of the eighteenth century recognised to be the inseparable twin of light and reason and logic.

This portrait was sold in 1899 by a Dr J.N. Haynes, before whom no ownership is known certainly. It has been suggested that Dr Haynes may have been a descendant of the engraver Joseph Haynes (1760 – 1829) who produced prints of several of Romney’s paintings. Haynes died in Chester, leaving his estate to his brother, a tradesman in London, and other beneficiaries outside his family but the will lacks any detailed list of his chattels, and his possession of a self-portrait by Romney cannot be proved. ON the other hand, this portrait sketch very closely resembles the self-portrait engraved in stipple by W.T. Fry after a drawing of the portrait by John Jackson RA, which was illustrated The British Gallery of Contemporary Portraits in 1822. This painting was at that date in the possession of the painter’s brother, the Rev John Romney. The present painting was acquired in 1899 from Dr Haynes’s sale by Mrs W.H. Burns an astute American collector and connoisseur of English painting who amassed an important collection at North Mymms Park, her Elizabethan country house in Hertfordshire.
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