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).
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.
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