Face Value: Emily Mann on the 18th-Century Equivalent of the Celebrity Photo-Shoot. (Art)

Article excerpt

It is amazing how fond the English are of having their portraits drawn," observed a Swiss miniaturist in 1755. That is certainly the impression one gets from a visit to the exhibition of paintings and drawings by George Romney (1734-1802) at the National Portrait Gallery.

The show, marking the bicentenary of Romney's death, charts his rise from provincial artist to London society painter, aiming to rescue his reputation from the shadows of success cast by his better-remembered contemporaries Thomas Gainshorough and Joshua Reynolds. The exhibition also highlights the dilemma that confronted many artists of the time: the gulf between their artistic ambitions and what the punters wanted to fill that spot in the entrance hall, on the staircase or above the mantelpiece in their town or country houses.

Romney's career, largely dictated by fashionable society's passion for portraits, provides an insight into the demands and constraints of the art market in 18th-century England. We learn that artists were seldom their own boss, free to express their creativity and imagination, but rather were servants to the patrons of art.

As with the public art exhibitions of Romney's day, the walls of the current show are dominated by the faces of the well-mannered and well-monied. In a world with a burgeoning wealthy class, but without society photographers and Hello! magazine, the portrait painter was evidently much sought after. And in most cases his product was no less public than today's celebrity photo-shoot: from its inception, when the subject commonly arrived for a sitting accompanied by an entourage (a sort of performance art in itself) to the finished painting's exhibition (where "creatures of high-life" crowded to "compliment each other on their own gaudy countenance") to commissions for copies and prints of the original.

Just as photos of celebrities have an appeal far beyond their friends and family, these 18th-century portraits were intended not merely to provide their owners with a good likeness of their nearest and dearest -- indeed, the portrait painter Henry-Pierre Danloux was able to say that he admired Romney "despite the truly defective likeness of his models..."

Portraits reflected and reinforced cultural values, reaffirming the different spheres occupied by the sitters. Men appear "decided and grand"; women "lovely". Such distinctions are particularly evident in Romney's child portraits. The Charteris Children is divided in two by a tree trunk in the background. On one side, the boy grasps the string of his kite and, with his dog looking up at him obediently, turns purposefully away from the viewer, out into the landscape beyond. While he is off for adventure outdoors, his sisters are going nowhere: they are sheltered from the outside world, seated and passive, sweet and vacant. …