Another beautiful girl, "Miss Vernon as Hebe," now in Warwick House, would have an honoured place in my roomful of fine Romney productions.
Well may this charming goddess claim to restore beauty and youth to those who have lost them. Abundant brown hair crowns the pure, untroubled brow; she glides forward, bearing the wine cup, and looking upwards as she advances. As in the Miss Ramus, candour and nobility have here taken the place of the Romney prettiness.
Perhaps it is the curling powdered hair, perhaps the pout of disdain on the lips or the flicker of contempt in the eyes, that gives to "Lady Altamount" (Lady Sligo) the air and very essence of an eighteenth-century aristocrat. This proud and fragile beauty found in Romney, son of a cabinet-maker, the man who could perfectly interpret her exquisiteness.
Does the large white hat, tied with blue ribbons beneath her chin, that "Miss Cumberland" wears, suit the lady? I think so, and so thought Romney, when this dark-eyed daughter of his friend Richard Cumberland decked herself one day in an old-fashioned hat to amuse her family.
Romney happened to call, saw the charm of the decoration, and saw his picture.
When I come upon a portrait of a fragile blonde by Romney, I feel that he is at his best with fair women; when I see one of his bold beauties, such as "Lady Morshead," the tangle of her profuse brown hair contrasted with the simple folds of her muslin fichu, I feel that he is at his best with dark women. This "Lady Morshead," doing nothing, but looking charming; bright-eyed "Mrs. Raikes," playing on a spinet; the dark Cholmeley girls; bewitching Sarah with the ringlets; and the more dignified Catherine--they were painted on Romney's best days.
A few of his "Mother and Child" groups must also have place on the walls of my imaginary room--the "Mrs. Russell," in a green dress at Swallowfield Park, holding the sash of her small child, who is standing upon a table, back to the spectator, regarding its chubby face in a circular mirror--a happy design this, most natural and winning; the "Mrs. Canning," seated beneath a tree and clasping her infant to her bosom, but quite conscious that her portrait is being painted; and the "Mrs. Carwardine," in a high white cap, who is consoling her baby and ignoring the painter--a charming and restful group.
Also the boy "Lord Henry Petty," at Landsdowne House, a quaint figure in his blue tail-coat and amber-coloured trousers, standing in an affected attitude, with his fingers marking the passage in a book, which he pretends to have been reading. The boy is posing. Romney did not always succeed in suggesting the simplicity of childhood. Even in the famous group of the "Children of the Earl of Gower," now in the possession of the Duke of Sutherland, delightful as it is, one is conscious that the actions of the children are not spontaneous.
Clasping each other's hands, the lively creatures dance round in a ring, their sandalled feet tripping to a measure played by Lady Anne upon a tambourine held in the "grand manner" above her left shoulder.
This group has been called Romney's masterpiece. The murmur of pleasure that rises to the lips at the first sight of the "Clavering Children" is checked by the feeling that the small boy must eternally and wearily hold his right arm outstretched on a level with his head.
So Romney has fixed him, holding high aloft the leash that confines the two spaniels. Otherwise, the group is delightful. The little girl fondles a puppy, her brother's left arm clasps her waist, and the children, conscious that they are being watched, trip forward through the landscape. In another of the large groups, "The Countess of Warwick and her Children," there is something very taking in the small old-fashioned figure of the boy with the hoop, and in the intimate movement of the girl, who is whispering to her listening mother.
The group of "The Horsley Children," so simply painted and so sure, was designed on one of Romney's happy days. George and Charlotte stand on the steps of a garden terrace beneath a tree, in white dresses with blue sashes. In her right hand the girl holds poppies; in her left a corn-flower.
PLATE VIII.--MISS RAMUS. (From the picture in the possession of the Hon. W. F. D. Smith.)
Connoisseurs in beauty have long disputed as to which is the lovelier of the two Ramus girls painted by Romney. The bow of Miss Ramus' lips may be a thought too precise, but how vibrant she is in spite of her composure I how keen and quick the look of her high-bred face! It would be hard to make a choice between Miss Ramus and Miss Benedetto.
[Illustration: PLATE VIII.--MISS RAMUS.]
Two portraits of men I should include in my collection of significant Romneys--the "Warren Hastings," with its watchful dignity, and the inward smile that flickers on the calm, purposeful face of John Wesley.
From the following extract, printed in _Wesley's Journal_, January 5, 1789, I judge that he, like Thurlow, belonged to the Romney faction: "Mr. Romney is a painter indeed. He struck off an exact likeness at once, and did more in an hour than Sir Joshua did in ten."
No one ever accused Romney of a lack of quickness. He could always begin; he could not always continue to the end.
EMMA, AND THE END
The life of Romney, apart from his paintings, has interested the world in two particulars--his desertion of his wife and his passion for Emma Lyon. This extraordinary woman, the daughter of a blacksmith, began as a nursemaid: she suffered from libertines, loved Charles Greville and lived under his protection, married Sir William Hamilton, became world-famous as the beloved of Nelson, and died in Calais, an exile, where she was buried "at the expense of a charitable English lady."
Romney did not meet her until the year 1782, when he was forty-eight, although it has been suggested that the acquaintance began earlier.
Certain it is that Greville brought the lovely girl to the studio in Cavendish Square in 1782, and that, until her departure for Naples in 1789, she was the joy, the light and the inspiration of Romney's life.
Mr. Humphry Ward quotes in his Essay a letter Romney wrote to her at Naples, "astonishing in its orthography." A passage runs: "I have planned many other subjects for pictures, and flatter myself your goodness will indulge me with a few sittings when you return to England--I have now a good number of Ladys of (? fashion) setting to me since you left England--but all fall far short of the Sempstress.
Indeed, it is the sun of my Hemispheer, and they are the twinkling stars. When I return to London I intend to finish the Cassandra and the picture of Sensibility." It was during her absence that the dejection darkening his latter years began.
She returned in 1791, and joy revived when she tripped into his studio "attired in Turkish costume." Sunshine again flooded his clouding brain, and the man of fifty-seven writes thus to Hayley: "At present, and the greatest part of the summer, I shall be engaged in painting pictures from the divine lady. I cannot give her any other epithet, for I think her superior to all womankind." Shortly afterwards the painter was plunged into gloom by an apparent coolness on the part of the lady, but it passed. She again sits to him, and we read of Romney, the recluse, giving a party in Cavendish Square in her honour: "She is the talk of the whole town and really surpasses everything, both in singing and acting, that ever appeared." Then followed her marriage to Sir William Hamilton at Marylebone Church and return to Italy. Romney and Emma never met again. From Caserta she wrote him a long letter, which shows the innate goodness and sweetness of this beautiful butterfly, who was always pursued, and who was sometimes (not always unwillingly) caught. Here is a passage from that letter of simple self-revelation: "You have known me in poverty and prosperity, and I had no occasion to have lived for years in poverty and distress if I had not felt something of virtue in my mind. Oh, my dear Friend! for a time I own through distress virtue was vanquished. But my sense of virtue was not overcome."
Emma was not only a versatile actress; she was also an artist's model of genius, able to give charm and personality to any character she was asked to assume, and she was shrewd enough to see that there was no surer and more enjoyable avenue to a popular appreciation of her beauty than Romney's brush. Other men, including Sir Joshua, painted the auburn hair, the perfect mouth, the flower-like complexion, the bewitching eyes, and the infinite phases of expression; but Romney limned her with the insight of a lover. For him there was no disillusion. He alone made her eternally beautiful. Did she love him?
I think not. She liked him unfeignedly and was flattered by his admiration, but all her love, before the Nelson epoch, was given to Charles Greville. Her marriage to Sir William Hamilton was a bargain for social advancement. He, at the instigation of nephew Charles, appraised her beauty, and succumbed. Her early admirer, Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh, of Up Park, succumbed and rode away. Sir William Hamilton placed the nuptial ring upon the slender finger of his charmer. Emma sat to Romney once only after she had become Lady Hamilton, and after that sitting, on September 6, 1791, there is not a single entry in his Diary until the 12th of the following month. We may infer that the marriage and departure of the "sun of his Hemispheer" put him temporarily out of humour with painting. The most bewitching of his sitters could not fill her place. As well offer Charmian or Iras to Antony when Cleopatra was away.
In the _Catalogue Raisonne_, already mentioned, which contains all the extant information about Romney's pictures, the authors state that very many so-called "Lady Hamiltons" are neither by Romney nor of Lady Hamilton. Over eighty authentic examples remain detailed in their list. Romney painted many renderings of some of the fanciful characters for which Emma sat--as a Bacchante, for example, of which twelve versions are catalogued. The half-length in the National Portrait Gallery with the eloquent eyes, her rich hair confined in a long linen swathe tied turban-wise, I have already mentioned; also the mocking study in the National Gallery. The parent of all the Bacchantes was the half-length painted about 1784 and sent to Sir William Hamilton at Naples, with Greville's comment: "The dog was ugly, and I made him paint it again." The best known is the full length in the possession of Mr. Tankerville Chamberlayne. Laughing, with head on one side, she glides beneath a tree, leading a goat that is fading into nothingness; but the dog, leaping and barking at the prospect of a scamper with his pretty mistress, is as lively as the lovely priestess of Bacchus.
Romney's earliest picture of Emma was the "Lady Hamilton as Nature," an attraction, in coloured reproductions of varying merit, of London print-shops. She is seated before a formal but charming landscape background holding a dog, almost too large for a pet, in her arms. The red dress is cut low, her bright hair is bound with a double green fillet. She is the personification of youth and gaiety, but let the eighteenth-century poet, who sang her praises as "Nature," speak--
"Flush'd by the spirit of the genial year, Her lips blush deeper sweets--the breath of Youth; The shining moisture swells into her eyes In brighter glow; her wishing bosom heaves With palpitations wild."
So a picture may preserve minor verse.
It is amazing to recall that the full-length "Circe" realised but fourteen and a half guineas at the Romney sale in 1807. Twenty years later, in 1831, Croker's contemptuous query, "What is a Ramsey or a Romney worth now?" shows that the star of Romney was still obscured; but in 1890, at the sale of Long's effects, with the figures of the animals painted in by that artistic surgeon, this same Circe realised 3850 guineas.
Bare-footed, with left hand upraised, she advances from the gloom of the rocks, lit on the left by a gleam of sky and sea. Her dress is pale red, the fillet in her hair and the veil that flows behind are pale blue; but it is the face at which we gaze, the pure, childlike, lovely face whose subtleties of simplicity were revealed to the eyes of her constant lover, so sure that in her he had found the realisation of the artist's dream.
It is difficult to say which of the Romney Lady Hamiltons is the most beautiful. Hard it is to choose between those I have mentioned and the lovely mystery of Sir Arthur Ellis's sketch for the "Cassandra"; or the dark hair hooded in white of "The Spinster"; or the startled eyes "Reading the Gazette"; or the half-length, belonging to Lord Rothschild, seated in pensive mood, with her left hand under her chin, the brow shadowed by the black hat, and the eyes pensive as a nun's.
A print-shop near Bond Street utilises a reproduction of this portrait as a hanging sign, as a tailor in Holborn uses the Moroni "Portrait of a Tailor." Men whose route from office to train lies through the neighbourhood have been known to go out of their way for the sake of a glance at Emma. She cheered Romney. She cheers still.
I might well end on this note. The rest, if not silence, is best forgotten. It has been referred to in the first chapter. Romney lived for eleven years after Emma's marriage and painted some good pictures, but he suffered increasingly from failing health and depression. In 1798 after the disastrous building experiment at Hampstead he sold the lease of 32 Cavendish Square to Martin Archer Shee and returned to his wife and child. He bought an estate at Whitestock, near Ulverstone, but did not live to build the house. His brain was clouded during the last two years of his life, and his wife, nursing him, watched the "Worn-out Reason dying in her house." To faithful Mary he murmurs, in Tennyson's poem, these valedictory words--
"Beat, little heart, on this fool brain of mine.
I once had friends--and many--none like you.
I love you more than when we married. Hope!
O yes, I hope, or fancy that, perhaps, Human forgiveness touches heaven, and thence-- For you forgive me, you are sure of that-- Reflected, sends a light on the forgiver."