Emma as The Spinstress
The Spinstress dates from this second series of paintings. Greville could not afford to pay for it, so it was sold to another buyer on the condition that he could “repurchase” it. Unusually, the sittings for this painting took place at Edgware Row, not in Romney’s studio. During this time, according to a pupil of Romney’s, he was also painting Emma’s face into a number of history and allegorical works, as his sketchbooks were filled with her face in its changing nuances of expression to slot into various characters and poses. She was still his muse as well as his great obsession.
Lord Hamilton also had his portrait painted by Romney at this time; he was splendidly ceremonial in his fur-trimmed scarlet coat and regalia. He was 53 years old. A friend described him as “…tall and meagre…with a dark complexion, a very aquiline nose [and] an air of intelligence, blended with distinction...”
Sir William Hamilton, by George Romney, 1783
This was to be the man Emma Hart would eventually marry in 1791. She would be sent to him as a gift from his nephew Greville, who was eager to curry favor with his uncle by setting him up with a woman Hamilton had found attractive. He was also by this time very eager to find an heiress to marry and did not want to have his mistress in the way while he was on this quest. Emma, knowing she was being cast off, was reluctant to go, but she acquiesced, setting off for Italy in 1786. She thoroughly shocked her former lover and all of the Hamilton family by marrying Lord Hamilton and becoming the toast of Naples. (Greville would become engaged to an 18-year-old heiress, Henrietta Middleton.) In due time, Emma would meet the celebrated naval hero, Lord Nelson, fall madly in love with him, and elope, deserting their respective spouses. They’d have at least one surviving child, a daughter, Horatia, who married a vicar, had nine children, and all her life denied Emma Hamilton was her mother. But this is a story for someone else to tell.
Lord Nelson, one-armed, one-eyed, and the love of Emma’s life
And this story – the love affair with Lord Nelson and its sad aftermath -- has been told many times elsewhere, in Flora Fraser’s authoritative biography Emma, Lady Hamilton, in 1986 (reprinted in paperback as Beloved Emma, in 2004); in Susan Sontag’s 1992 The Volcano Lover; and in the latest of these, the Kate Williams biography, England’s Mistress, 2006. (There was also a 1941 British film, That Hamilton Woman, starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier as Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. The handsome actors, who’d just divorced their respective spouses, were newlyweds.)
Meanwhile, by 1792, with the demise of his greatest rivals Thomas Gainsborough (1788) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1792), George Romney had at last achieved the first rank of portrait painters in England. Though he never became a member of the Royal Academy, he was now in the position of having to turn prospective clients away, and could charge on a scale comparative with RA painters. Flush with money, he decided to look for larger digs. But, by 1794, his health had begun to fail.
According to Artists’ London, from Holbein to Hirst, in 1796 Romney was on the verge of acquiring an expensive lease on a 4-acre building site on the Edgware Road (once Edgware Row, where Emma had lived in those rented lodgings), when his son, John, worried he was throwing away his money (and probably John’s eventual inheritance), persuaded him to look instead at Hampstead, a pretty little village easily gotten to from London (there were two coaches daily).
Romney’s son was concerned the Edgware Road lease – with its restrictive stipulations that a certain kind of house had to be built on the property and that there would be a lifetime rent of £40 per year -- might have bankrupted his father, and so worked to convince him “to move permanently to a ‘good…and convenient house’ that could be extended with a gallery and studio ‘at small expense’.” Romney had in fact lived in Hampstead in the spring and summer of 1788, so knew the area well. (He’d commuted on foot to his Cavendish Square studio throughout those several months.)
The lure of the village, as described in the Victorian guidebook, The Fascination of London: Hampstead, by Sir Walter Besant and G.E. Mitton, was that it had “an atmosphere of its own – an atmosphere in two senses, for the great height of part of the borough [i.e., the elevation of Hampstead Heath] and its distance from London combine to give it as wholesome and pure an air as may be found in any place in England, and an atmosphere in the metaphorical sense – a peculiar feeling of brightness and lightness which proclaims a favoured suburb.”
The village was also home on and off to the great landscape painter Thomas Constable and his family, though that artist continued to keep a home at 76 Charlotte Street in London. He lodged in Hampstead for two important reasons. One was that the wonderful views of the countryside inspired him to set them down in oils and watercolor, the other was that his wife Maria suffered from tuberculosis and the Hampstead air was considered healthier. The Constable family – his wife and sons -- are buried there at St. John’s Church. Other Hampstead artists and literary figures were Coventry Patmore, Leigh Hunt, and the great Romantic poet John Keats.
So, in 1797, George Romney purchased, for £700, a sizable property, The Mount, on Holly Bush Hill, and began to make improvements on it.
In England’s Mistress, the most recent biography of Emma Hamilton, Kate Williams writes:
Romney’s obsession with Emma pervaded his work for the rest of his life. He filled dozens of sketchbooks with pictures of her nude, clothed, and in various poses. Even when he painted other women, he made them look like her. He showed her exuberant, sensual personality and her pleasure in life and he never equaled the vibrancy and grace of his portraits of her in his other work.
I would add some further comments, though Williams’ remarks are thoughtful and true, in my opinion. Like Reynolds and Gainsborough, Romney was a slave to beauty, but, as his was a more extreme personality than either of those two artists, he was to suffer for beauty in the extreme. Reynolds loved the actress Fanny Abington and painted a number of portraits of her; he might well have had a sexual affair with her. Gainsborough painted the courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott twice (and had sketches for a third portrait), the second painting so alluring it caused a good deal of talk; she was doubtless one of the beautiful sitters who so aroused him that he had to hie himself off to Covent Garden after a sitting to slake his lust, a virtual affair, at best.
Of the three, given the temperaments of both artist and model, the close intimacy of the sitting arrangements, with no one else present, it is difficult not to believe that sexual activity took place. He painted her in the nude; she sang and danced with inhibition; she was probably the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The portraits of Emma pop out with passion. Of course there was lovemaking!
But what did it mean? For him, probably everything; for her, not as much. Emma Hart was a product of the rural English countryside, as was Romney. Neither had anything to speak of in the way of an education. Romney received the polish of Italy as an adult; Emma had had a smattering of lessons, in riding horses, in how to please men, and became more and more savvy in the ways of society, but she was forever characterized by those who met her as “vulgar” and “coarse”. The sow’s ear did not produce a silk purse. But it did not matter to the men who were overwhelmed by her beauty. All else was irrelevant. Men had to have her, and a wealthy aristocrat finally did marry her, the ultimate possession. Emma, being Emma, then lost it all by falling in love with a national hero.
What did Romney think about all this? Another thing, alas, we shall never know, but anyone who looks at those portraits and does not sense the love radiating from those brush strokes is a hardened character indeed. He, like Lord Hamilton, lost Emma, too, but those paintings remain and they signify quite a lot.
George Romney’s decline was swift once he left London in 1799. His death in 1802 (he was the only one of the Gainsborough-Reynolds-Romney trio to survive into the 19th century) was described thusly by his son in the Memoirs:
This grandiose plan failed miserably. He’d asked his friend in Rome, the sculptor John Flaxman (who would become famous as a designer for Wedgwood), to send him a number of plaster casts of antique statuary to fill his gallery (many young gentlemen on the Grand Tour sent home casts of ancient sculptures to fill their stately homes), but it turned out that there was not enough space at The Mount to house this collection. Romney had isolated himself permanently, having giving up his London studio to no avail; he’d had lost clients unwilling to make the trip out of the city; and he had failed to attract students or visitors. Soon, his failing health further declined and his mind became disordered. Relegated to damp outbuildings spectacularly unsuitable to store art, his paintings and casts began to deteriorate badly and some were stolen. (Ah, all those sketchbooks full of the divine Emma’s face and figure!) The move to Hampstead turned out to be a major fiasco. Ironically, he would probably have been better off in the building on Edgware Road that his son feared would have bankrupted him.
Romney, even worse than Gainsborough when it came to saving his money, had squandered £2,733 on building additions to The Mount. He left Hampstead in 1799, after only two years, having had to sell property into which he’d put over £3,500 for the paltry sum of £357, roughly 1/10th of what it had cost him. Truly a fiasco on a grand scale. His son quickly persuaded him to cut his losses by returning to Kendal, in the Lake District, and reconcile with his wife.
George Romney was to see Emma only one more time, when she returned to England just before her marriage to Lord Hamilton. She once again sat for him – many were the sittings -- but we can imagine that the circumstances were very different from those first halcyon days in the early 1780s. So, there ends the tale of the painter and his beautiful, unattainable muse.
“The infirmities of old age came upon Mr. R sooner than he expected; he reckoned on a longer life, and, in truth…might have retained his faculties unimpaired for at least ten years longer. His constitution, however, began to give way in his 60th year (1794); but his genius like the light of a taper approaching to its extinction, occasionally burst into fits of splendour during its decline.”
There are hints throughout his son’s book that Romney, his father, and his brother Peter all suffered from a possibly inherited tendency to clinical depression that brought upon their demise. It’s possible, too, that George Romney’s death was hastened by the loss of his beloved Emma, who was not to sit for him again after that one last time in London.
Last known image of Romney, painted by Mary Barrett in 1798
The inscription on the back of the miniature painted by his pupil reads:
“George Romney in 1798 Painted by Miss M Barrett a pupil of Romneys”
The artist Mary Barrett was studying under Romney in 1797. An unnamed source noted the artist was suffering from “lassitude of body, and restlessness of mind” but that in May he was “very cheerfully amused by sitting to a lady of the house for his portrait; it was an ex tempore production; a rapid sketch; but a very striking resemblance.” He is a mockery of his former self, a little old man, balding and looking feeble-minded, hardly the intense man of his early self-portraits. There is barely a resemblance.
The Reverend Romney stated his father was never in pain, but that his mind had entirely gone when he finally died in his 68th year. The first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography states it rather more graphically, if not crudely, saying that he “gradually sank into a state of helpless imbecility”. He was to be once again nursed by his wife Molly, but this time with no happy outcome. (His long-abandoned wife died in 1823, in her 97th year.) A cenotaph in Kendal marks his birth and death, but he’s buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s-in-Furness, Dalton, Cumbria, in the Lake District, the very same village where he was born.