Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Pen and ink and wash on laid paper
  • 12 × 20 ½ inches · 305 × 521 mm
  • Drawn c. 1790

Collections

  • Elizabeth Romney (1814–1893), granddaughter of the artist;
  • Romney sale, Christie’s, 24 -25 May 1894 (unknown part lot);
  • Alfred de Pass (1861-1952);
  • Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, the gift of the above in 1928;
  • Royal Institution of Cornwall sale, Christie’s, 22nd February 1966;
  • where acquired by Agnew's, London;
  • Susannah Braithwaite, London, acquired from the above;
  • Cheffins, Cambridge, 6th December 2023, lot.271;
  • Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd.

Exhibitions

  • London, Kenwood House, George Romney, Paintings and Drawings, 1961, cat. no.62; 
  • London, Agnew’s, French and English Drawings 1780-1965, 1966.

This large, powerful sheet is one of the boldest drawings by George Romney to appear on the market in a generation. The drawing, which is preserved in outstanding condition, offers a very complete realisation of Romney’s John Howard Visiting Prisoners. Conceived initially as a painting, Romney instead focused on a sequence of highly experimental drawings, each of which push the boundaries of both narrative and formal design well beyond anything that was conceived for public exhibition in Europe at the date. In the present unusually resolved drawing, Romney puts the focus on the writhing figures of the prisoners, leaving John Howard as a schematic ink sketch and relegating the gaoler on the left to a menacing silhouette. Made shortly after the Storming of the Bastille and Romney’s own visit to Revolutionary France in 1790, it is apparent that the drawings were conceived as an excoriating attack on the plight of prisoners everywhere and a universal statement of liberty. As such, Romney’s drawings of John Howard Visiting Prisoners, should be considered as some of the most politically potent, as well as visually advanced works produced at the end of the eighteenth century.

Romney had been aware of the work of the prison reformer John Howard since at least 1779 when William Hayley had seized upon him as a suitable subject for laudatory verse. The following year Hayley published his Ode Inscribed to John Howard, Esq., which contained a frontispiece drawn by Romney and engraved by Bartolozzi. Howard had gone to extraordinary lengths to survey British prisons and then published a series of accounts of the appalling physical conditions he had discovered, proposing a series of fundamental reforms. Howard’s death in the Ukraine in 1790 whilst inspecting prisons brought his campaigns back into focus, Hayley rushed out a new poem The Eulogies of Howard: A Vision and Romney began work on his depiction of Howard visiting prisoners. As Hayley himself observed in his Life of George Romney: ‘it was a favourite object of Romney’s ambition to paint, not merely a single portrait, but a series of pictures, to express his veneration for the character of Howard; and to display the variety of relief, that his signal benevolence afforded to the sufferings of the wretched.’[1] The surviving drawings suggest that Romney was interested in producing a single image that distilled all the pathos of Howard’s revelations. The drawings show a mass of half-naked, ill and dying prisoners of both genders – one of the more shocking discoveries Howard had made during his inspections – incarcerated in shadowy, vaulted space. Hayley implied that Romney’s direct inspiration was Howard himself. Hayley noted that the reformer, although resistant to sit to Romney for his portrait ‘had the goodness however to mention several scenes, of which he had been a spectator in foreign prisons, that he thought most suited to exercise the talents of a great moral painter.’

Establishing a clear sense of the evolution of Romney’s ideas from the mass of surviving drawings is difficult. But it does appear that in his earliest conceptions, perhaps amongst those sheets preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the focus was on the caped figure of Howard himself. But as the composition developed, Howard moves to the periphery and, as in the present drawing, the suffering prisoners become the focus. This shift perhaps represents Romney’s ambitions for his design. Alex Kidson has suggested that Romney conceived these drawings as an overt political allegory ‘with the posthumous figure of Howard standing literally for the principle of ‘liberty’.[2] Kidson notes that Romney ‘seems instinctively to have been thinking along the lines later followed by Géricault in his Raft of the Medusa, about a work of the grandest scale and full of pathos, dealing with universal human events.’

Romney was certainly conscious of the wider potential of treating on an epic scale, a political subject with a universal message. In 1790, barely a year after the storming of the Bastille, Romney travelled to Paris where he spent time with the Rev. John Warner, the chaplain to the British Embassy and Howard’s most ardent champion. Romney moved in avowedly republican circles, the sculptor Thomas Banks was described as ‘a violent democrat’, his closest friends, such as Richard Cumberland and Hayley, were both passionately interested in events in France, and Romney met in Paris the writers Helen Maria Williams and Mary Wollstencraft. All were enthused by the initial optimism of the French Revolution’s initial bloodless liberation before the onset of the Terror. In Paris Romney met Jacques-Lousi David, then contemplating a political painting on a contemporary historic subject, The Tennis Court Oath.

Like David, Romney it appears, was also seeking a new visual language with which to explore this modern subject. Romney plotted his composition in a series of large-scale, black ink drawings of remarkable graphic intensity. The figures tend to be arranged in a tight, shallow pictorial space, in this drawing, a solitary stone arch gives a nebulous sense of the architectural setting. It appears that as the sequence developed Romney became increasingly interested in the power of outline, developing a flowing lyricism of line which has an unusual precision and discipline. It is this simplicity which Robert Rosenblum identified as a primitivist tendency informed by close study of the antique and early Italian painting. The figures, in their poses, synthesise certain antique and modern precedents. The group nearest to Howard and the gaoler recall the Roman group of the so-called Ludovisi Gaul, whilst the figure on the far right recalls Stefano Maderno’s figure of Saint Cecilia.

Romney’s graphic oeuvre is singular for his apparently relentless repetition and refinement of compositional motifs. Romney himself believed that ‘impressions should be heated and fermented long in the mind.’[3] As such, in the great sequence of drawings showing John Howard Visiting Prisoners Romney developed a kind of dialectical approach. In successive sheets, Romney uses different levels of finish to articulate individual figures or groups. In the group of sheets preserved at the Fitzwilliam, the focus is on Howard, with the prisoners reduced to schematic masses. As the figure of the gaoler and Howard were set on the left-hand side, Romney’s focus turned instead to the prisoners, leaving Howard and the gaoler as wash forms. A drawing from the Thaw collection at the Morgan Library and Museum shows Romney focussing on the emotional potential of adding a child distraught at the prone figure of his mother. This is a detail which does not appear in other drawings, suggesting it was a single experiment, Romney abandoned. The Morgan drawing shows the man emerging from the arch at the back of the composition as a grey wash void. In the present sheet, he is carefully delineated: his powerful muscular form and grimly drawn face expressing anguish at the corpse lying on a palette beneath the arch. The detail of the man’s features points to the purpose of this sheet, Romney carefully experimenting with the varying expressions of the prisoners, from anguish to resignation.

George Romney
John Howard Visiting a Prison
Pen and black ink and wash over graphite.
12 ¾ x 21 inches; 324 x 533 mm
ca. 1780-1785
The Morgan Library & Museum Thaw Collection.
2017.225

As Alex Kidson has noted: ‘Romney’s drawings on the subject of the visit of the prison reformer John Howard to a lazar house may be regarded as the greatest project of the last phase of his career.’[4] No other artist of the period engages in such a complex, or graphically radical process in pursuit of such a politically potent contemporary image. This large, ambitious and meticulously worked sheet is one of the most compelling of the group and appears to be the only large format drawing from the group still in private hands.

George Romney
John Howard visiting a lazaretto
Graphite, pen and grey ink, grey wash on laid paper
13 ¼ x 21 ¼ inches; 335 x 540 mm
c. 1790
Robert Clermont Witt, bequest, 1952
The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

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References

  1. William Hayley, The Life of George Romney, London, 1809, p.87. 
  2. Alex Kidson, George Romney 1734-1802, exh. cat., London (National Portrait Gallery), 2002, p.212. 
  3. David A. Cross, A Striking Likeness: The Life of George Romney, Aldershot, 2000, p.166.
  4. Alex Kidson, George Romney 1734-1802, exh. cat., London (National Portrait Gallery), 2002, p.212.