How the Post Office Can Take You from Struggling Artist to Famous Society Portraitist!

Or at least this is just what it did for renowned artist George Romney in the 1760’s. Romney was one of the most popular portraitists in London during the second half of the 18th century, competing with the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds for commissions and patrons. He painted many leading society figures of his day—most notably Lady Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Horatio Nelson, who was Romney’s muse and appeared in over sixty of his paintings.

But Romney was not always the famous society artist that we know him as today. Born in Dalton-on-Furness on December 26, 1734, the son of a cabinet maker, Romney began his artistic career in Kendal at the age of twenty-one, apprenticed to a local artist. He was married in 1756 to Mary Abbott, but they were almost instantly separated after their marriage and remained apart for the better part of Romney’s life. He then moved to London in 1762, but continued to struggle financially and never found any great success, as Romney had very few acquaintances in London, which made it difficult to find commissions. However, this changed somewhat when Romney befriended Daniel Braithwaite, the clerk to the Postmaster General, who introduced him into the middle-class professional circles, an important society group eager to commission portraits. You can see Mr. Braithwaite’s appointment records in the Post Office below, in 1765 and 1768, which hail from the BPMA archives (POST 58/1).

Appointment of Daniel Braithwaite, 1765 (POST 58/1)

Appointment of Daniel Braithwaite, 1765 (POST 58/1)

Appointment of Daniel Braithwaite, 1768 (POST 58/1)

Appointment of Daniel Braithwaite, 1768 (POST 58/1)

After experiencing this success and finally earning some money as a portraitist, Romney then travelled to Paris in 1764 and Italy in 1772 to complete his training and study the works of the Old Masters, as most aspiring artists did in those days. He returned to London in great debt in 1775, but his new found training and his old success in the city helped him to win many important commissions, and Romney’s success as a portraitist was finally secured. It was during this wave of newfound popularity that Romney painted his portrait of Anthony Todd, the Postmaster General from 1762-65 and 1768-1798, whom he possibly had contact to through his friendship with Daniel Braithwaite.

Anthony Todd, George Romney, British Postal Museum & Archive Collection, c. 1779

Anthony Todd, George Romney, British Postal Museum & Archive Collection, c. 1779

Three years after painting the Postmaster General, in April 1782 at the height of his popularity, Romney met Emma Hamilton, then Emma Hart, only seventeen years old to his forty eight years, who he began to paint obsessively, in the form of real-life portraits, allegorical portraits and history paintings. This marked a change in his career, as he was so enamoured by his muse that he found it difficult to take on regular commissions, altering his portrait practice. Despite this change, with the deaths of Gainsborough in 1788 and Reynolds in 1792, George Romney still became the leading portraitist in London. He was continually overwhelmed with commissions until he was forced to return to Kendal and his estranged wife in 1799 as a result of his failing health. Romney died on 15 November 1802 in Kendal at age 68 as one of the most prolific and renowned portraitists of his time—a reputation he earned with the help of his early friends in the Post Office.

- Sarah Cooper, Intern

3 responses to “How the Post Office Can Take You from Struggling Artist to Famous Society Portraitist!

  1. This was a really interesting post. Thanks for posting it up! I really learned something new :)

  2. Really enjoyed this article and the record images. This story about George Romney and the post office is very lovely and interesting!

  3. This was an interesting piece, thanks very much.
    I edit the Newsletter for the George Romney society (http://www.romney-society.org.uk/), and so I can add a little information.
    As Romney’s biographers point out, George had reason to be grateful to the PO early in his career, when Hugh Holme, postmaster in Kendal, commissioned a sign of a hand posting a letter, to be erected at the post box at the King’s Arms, Kendal. (This sign is now in the collection of Kendal Town Council). Daniel Braithwaite was also from Westmorland, although Romney came to know him when he moved to London in 1762, by which time Braithwaite was already a clerk in the PO. Braithwaite did well from his employment, enjoying Todd’s patronage, and rising to Controller of the Foreign Department of the PO by 1789. (His children included a son, James, who ‘was appointed postmaster at New York, not long before the termination of the American war.’ New Monthly Magazine, vol. X, 1818). He had a house in London’s Harpur St, and property in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. He was active in artistic circles as a patron and collector, and for a time was one of the proprietors of the European Magazine, with John Sewell and Isaac Reed (another friend and patron of Romney). Their relationships are discussed in ‘A striking likeness’ (2000), David Cross’s biography of George Romney; William Hayley dedicated his own Life of George Romney Esquire (1809) to Braithwaite.
    Todd too had links to Westmorland, for in 1758 he married Ann Robinson, (d. 1765), the daughter and heir of Christopher Robinson (d. 1762) of Appleby, Westmorland, resident surveyor in the Post Office. Her first cousin was the John Robinson, Treasury secretary under Lord North. Such connections helped Todd to gain his place. The marriage brought Todd £5000, with which he purchased an estate of about 150 acres at Walthamstow, Essex. His father-in-law’s death in 1762 brought him property in the City of London and at Sandal, Yorkshire, as well as £9000 in trust for his family. The Todds had three daughters, but sadly, Ann died in 1765, shortly after giving birth to their third child. Romney painted Todd in about 1779, a time when George was at the height of his popularity. It seems likely that Braithwaite had something to do with Todd commissioning the Romney portrait; but Todd’s personal connections with the north-west may also have played their part, just as they must have helped Braithwaite’s career.
    Kevin Littlewood

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s