George Romney was an exceptionally talented designer who relentlessly made drawings of historical, mythological and literary subjects. This beautifully painted roundel shows a female figure in classical costume leaning over the body of a young man.
Characteristically painted in fluid paint, Romney has carefully organised the figures into a tight, circular mahogany panel. Made at the same time as its pendant panel of Hebe with an attendant, this almost monochrome oil is exceptionally rare in Romney’s oeuvre and may well have been conceived as part of some unrecorded decorative scheme. The subject matter is somewhat ambiguous, but Alex Kidson has suggested that the painting shows Venus and Adonis a subject that Romney painted in an untraced oil sketch and experimented with in a number of bold ink and wash studies. None of the surviving drawings show a composition similar to this painting: the tender pose of Venus, kneeling next to her dead lover, her mournful profile obscuring his face. The compact figures point to Romney having thought carefully about the format of the mahogany panel. Romney made only a handful works on panel and it may well be that format and medium were dictated by the eventual location of this work, possibly incorporated into a ceiling or piece of furniture. The use of panel means that the paint surface is preserved in exceptional condition affording a rare opportunity to admire Romney’s celebrated ability at handling paint as though it were a brush and ink. By being unfinished, it retains all the bold linearity of Romney’s greatest drawings and underscores his passionate interest in antiquity and Greek vase painting in particular. This panel is first recorded, with its pendant, in the collection of Romney’s son, the Reverend John Romney. It is listed in the posthumous auction of his collection simply as ‘A Poetical Subject: Circle, unfinished’, suggesting that as early as 1834 the precise context for these works had already been forgotten.
We are grateful to Alex Kidson for confirming that this painting it is to be included in the forthcoming concordance to his 2015 catalogue which will be published next year.