This is the largest and most impressive preparatory drawing for Romney’s famous portrait of the Gower Children now in Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal. Romney was a bold and incisive draughtsman who made numerous rich brown ink studies, principally for historical compositions; by contrast, comparatively few studies linked directly to his portraits survive. The existence of a group of studies for the Gower Children underscores its importance to Romney. The sitters were the five youngest of the eight children of Granville, 2nd Earl Gower who, at the time the portrait was commissioned, was President of the Council in Lord North’s government and one of the best-connected and most influential people in England. The present drawing which is a large scale treatment of the composition in its final form perfectly distils Romney’s conceit: the younger children dancing whilst their elder sister, in the guise of a Bacchante plays the tambourine. The bold and dramatic study underlines both the artistic confidence and classical grandeur Romney gained during his trip to Italy between 1773 and 1775.
The commission from Granville, 2nd Earl Gower to paint five of his children came shortly after Romney’s Continental tour. The initial idea, as represented by the present drawing, seems to have been to paint Lady Anne, the figure on the right of the composition playing the tambourine, who was the youngest of Gower’s first four children by his second wife Lady Louisa Egerton and who married the Rev. Edward Vernon Harcourt, later Archbishop of York, with three of her younger half-siblings by Gower’s third wife, Lady Susanna Stewart: at the left Lady Georgina, who became Countess of St Germans following her marriage to the Hon. William Eliot; at the right Lady Charlotte Sophia, later Duchess of Beaufort and in the centre Lady Susanna, later Countess of Harrowby. Romney added a fifth child to the finished portrait, Gower’s son: Lord Granville, later created Viscount Granville and Earl Granville. In Italy Romney had produced a large number of studies of classical antiquities and old master paintings.
The commission from Gower offered Romney the opportunity to explore a complex multi-figural group, putting into practice the kind of ambitious classical quotations that Reynolds was currently exploiting. In 1773 Reynolds had completed the remarkable group portrait of the Montgomery Sisters, now in the Tate Gallery, London, which showed them adorning a herm of the Roman god Hymen; the composition used a garland to link the three figures who were shown in classical costume dancing at the foot of a Roman sculpture. Scholars have long pointed to a similar sources for the two compositions: the works of Nicolas Poussin. Whilst the Montgomery Sisters is based, in part, on a Bacchanal now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Gower Children has always been associated with Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time, now in the Wallace Collection, London. It seems more likely that Romney was looking to an antique source in the form of the Borghese Dancers, a Roman relief, then in Palazzo Borghese in Rome. Romney would have seen the relief of interlocking, dancing maidens and would also have known Guido Reni’s Aurora, the fresco on the ceiling of the Casino at Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi, which also relied upon the Borghese Dancers.
In the present drawing, Romney has structured a composition which uses the idea of interlocking female figures animated in dance for a portrait study: the three youngest daughters are carefully articulated so that their faces are visible. In the Gower Children Romney had a patron and commission which offered the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the vocabulary of quotations from classical antiquity and old master paintings he had acquired in Italy; the ‘materials of genius’ praised by Reynolds in his Discourses. Conscious of the prevailing fashion for semi-historicised portraits in, what Reynolds termed, the ‘great style’, Romney formulated an erudite formula which would appeal to his aristocratic patron and his peers; Reynolds noted in his last Discourse that such portraits were ‘artificial in the highest degree, it presupposes in the spectator, a cultivated and prepared artificial state of mind.’ The bold, almost abstract, forms and incisive draughtsmanship of the present drawing demonstrate Romney’s ability to conceive and formulate a powerful composition on the page. Executed with rich brown ink, this sheet is one of the boldest and most spectacular of Romney’s surviving portrait drawings.
- Alex Kidson, George Romney 1734–1802, exh. cat., London (National Portrait Gallery), London, 2002, pp.114-117.
- Ed. Nicholas Penny, Reynolds, exh. cat., London (Royal Academy of Arts), 1986, cat. no. 90, pp.262-263.
- Ed. Robert Wark, The Discourses of Joshua Reynolds, New Haven and London, 1975, p.277.