The Poet’s Eye

George Romney, 1734–1802

Catalog of the exhibition by Alex Kidson
an exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England, February 8–April 21, 2002;the National Portrait Gallery, London, May 30–August 18, 2002; andthe Huntington Library, San Marino, California,September 15–December 1, 2002
Princeton University Press,244 pp., $65.00

George Romney once belonged, as Alex Kidson reminds us in an essay, to the foremost ranks of blue-chip artists. What blue-chip connotes in this context is a portrait such as that of Mrs. Penelope Lee Acton, number 136 in the catalog of the current show in Liverpool (but only to be included in its California version): a full-length depiction of a fashionably dressed lady, painted in 1791. Big hair under a big bonnet, an elegant (though the catalog calls it stiff) pose against a mountainous landscape at sunset—yards of fabric, miles of distant view. English art at its most bankable.

H.E. Huntington bought this painting from Duveen in 1916. He normally bought from Duveen. He bought Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, the bluest of blue-chip paintings, for $620,000, from the Duke of Westminster, via Duveen, because he had crossed the Atlantic in the Gainsborough Suite of the Aquitania in 1921, and a copy of the Blue Boy was on the wall of his dining room, and Duveen happened to be on hand in the adjoining suite to tell him what it was. He bought Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse at the same time from the same owner, against the wishes of his wife Arabella, who was also his aunt. She hadn’t scrupled to marry her nephew (one of her late husband’s heirs), but she didn’t like the thought of giving wall space to a long-dead actress.

You are not buying an actress,” Duveen said to Arabella. “You are buying a great artist and his finest example. You are ambitious to build a collection of English pictures that will be an honour to America and unique in the world. You cannot afford to exclude this masterpiece.” Today, one feels, he would have been more likely to pull all the stops out in favor of a Cézanne, a Van Gogh, or a Picasso. But when H.E. Huntington bought a Romney from a rival dealer, and Duveen questioned the painting’s attribution, a court case ensued in which no expense was spared to redress the perceived wrong, and the rival dealer was forced out of business as a result.

Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney: the three leading portraitists of their day, the three blue-chips a century later—that is, roughly speaking, a century or less ago. And now, when we enter the newly refurbished rooms of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, it is of course in expectation of some of that old stardust, that period glamour. But glamour would not be enough to engage our full attention and respect. There would have to be something more to it than elegance and swagger, more than an insight into fashion, property, style.

Romney comes across initially as an ambitious young provincial with ideas way beyond his powers, a denizen of that paradise of English art, caught in midair somewhere between naiveté and sophistication, in the world of the conversation piece, where the figures stand like …

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