Magazine article The Spectator

Beset by Problems

Magazine article The Spectator

Beset by Problems

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2

George Romney 1734-1802

(Walker Art Gallery, till 21 April)

The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, has reinvented itself as the `National Gallery of the North'. It is still housed in the same majestic neoclassical building but has redisplayed its outstanding collection, which boasts three of the all-time masterpieces: William Hogarth's `Garrick as Richard III'; Simone Martini's `Christ with his parents in the Temple'; and Ercole de' Roberti's 'Pieta'. Its icons of British painting and sculpture in the 19th and early 20th centuries include, `And when did you last see your father?'.

The reorganisation has regained a large space for special exhibitions, beginning with a beautifully displayed exhibition devoted to that strange fish, George Romney, who was born in Kendal and so counts almost as a local boy. Although the show travels to London and California, be warned that there will then be a third fewer works on view.

Romney's stock has slumped since the heady days of the dealer Joseph Duveen in the last century, when an overcleaned and overvarnished Romney was a sine qua non of every self-respecting self-made American's collection. He is still popular with dealers, but the opportunity for an accurate estimation of his achievement has been lacking. This is the first big show devoted to Romney in which his paintings and drawings are equally well presented. It has been researched by Alex Kidson, who has also edited an entertaining book of essays on Romney, one of the contributors to which, David Cross, has published a full biography.

We are therefore aware as never before of the personal problems that beset Romney throughout his career. He had at best an untutored mind; at worst, a seriously deranged one. After a shotgun marriage at an early age to a woman ten years his senior, he abandoned her for a career in London. Although supporting his wife and child for life, he successfully dissuaded them from ever coming to join him. He thereafter suffered from unnamed vices -- `betrayed into impurities', as a contemporary carefully remarked. He was an habitual voyeur, and may have been not only into boys but also troilism and sado-masochism.

Some or all of these interesting problems made Romney guilt-ridden, and his personality was by nature obsessive. He was subject to the wildest mood swings, now manic, now in despond, frequently in tears. He partly found a saving structure in an over-- lavish schedule of sittings for his portrait business, and for a time he was the most successful portrait painter in London, not even excepting Reynolds. …

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