This fluid roundel was made by George Romney in the 1780s, based on a composition he had used in a portrait of Hester Grenville and her sister Catherine.
Unusually painted on a mahogany panel, Romney has simplified the forms and generalised the two sisters’ features to produce a design which operates independently of its origins as a portrait. The seated female figure on the right is shown holding an ewer pouring a libation into a cup held by the other figure; wearing classical drapery, the two figures recall a mythological scene, possibly Hebe and an attendant. Hebe was the cupbearer of the gods and used as a personification of youth, in eighteenth century British portraiture, young women were regularly shown in the guise of Hebe. Joshua Reynolds, in particular, produced several grand full-length portraits in which he depicted his sitters in the guise of the goddess, for example Mrs Musters as Hebe now in the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood. Romney himself painted the young Elizabeth Warren as Hebe in 1776 and now in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. The bold, sketch-like quality of this painting and its pendant, identified depicting Venus and Adonis, their circular format and the fact that they were painted on mahogany panels perhaps points to their use in a decorative scheme, rather than as standalone paintings. The elegantly arranged composition lends itself to being organised in a circular format and it may be that they were destined for a ceiling or to be inserted into a piece of furniture. It is notable that they appeared in the posthumous auction of Romney’s son’s collection where they are listed generically as of ‘poetical subjects’ and ‘unfinished’.
By the 1780s Romney was at the height of his powers as a painter. In December 1776 a friend noted of visiting his studio in Cavendish Street: ‘when I enter his house I tremble with I know not what! I can scarce believe my Eyes! such Pictures! and the Pictures of such People! I am lost in wonder & astonishment how all these things shoud be! how so short a travel coud give such Excellence to his Pencil! How an almost unfriended Man should at once contract so noble and numerous a Patronage!’ Romney combined his prodigious portrait practice with a relentless campaign of drawing, making thousands of pen and ink studies for historical compositions, many of which never came to fruition. This panel is an unusual example in Romney’s oeuvre of him using a design first developed for a portrait in the realisation of a historical composition. It demonstrates the way in which Romney’s obsessive interest in design could simultaneously fuel his commercial portrait practice and his more private interest in historical painting.
We are grateful to Alex Kidson for confirming that this painting is to be included in the forthcoming concordance to his 2015 catalogue which will be published next year.