14th Feb, 2023 12:00 EST

European Art and Old Masters

  Lot 27


George Romney (British, 1734–1802)
A Family Portrait, Three-Quarter-Length

Inscribed 'Eaton Place' on the upper central vertical stretcher bar verso, oil on canvas
50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6cm)
Executed circa 1790.


Private Collection, Pennsylvania.

$30,000 - $50,000

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Inscribed 'Eaton Place' on the upper central vertical stretcher bar verso, oil on canvas
50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6cm)
Executed circa 1790.


Private Collection, Pennsylvania.


We wish to thank Mr. Alex Kidson, for confirming the authenticity of the present work, which is set to be included in the forthcoming Addenda to the Catalogue Raisonné of the Artist's work.

Alongside Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney ranks among the foremost portraitists of 18th-century England. Following stints in France and Italy—where he copied and made studies after Eustache Le Sueur, Raphael and Titian—Romney settled in London, taking up residence in Cavandish Square. From 1775 until his retirement in 1796, few artists were more prolific. Diary entries record some 9,000 sittings, many by London’s leading families and figures, including model, dancer and actress, Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton), and fellow artist, Mary Moser. Renowned for his commitment to his craft, Romney excelled at complex figural groupings and reserved a special kind of sensitivity for depictions of women and children. His family portraits—particularly those from the final quarter of his career—are distinguished by their warmth and informality, and by the strength of their draftsmanship.

The present painting is a new, unrecorded addition to Romney's impressive body of work. Dating from the later part of the artist's career, it includes many characteristics of Romney's mature work in the conception and design of the picture, namely the cloud and the red curtain. Its size – the standard English half-length format – was commonly employed by the artist, as well as by many of his contemporary rivals. The latter part of Romney’s oeuvre is very well documented, which makes it unlikely for the picture to stand as a new, totally undocumented commission. According to Mr. Kidson, the present painting is likely an old picture from the 1770s, which Romney reworked and "updated to the language of fashionable portraiture in the second quarter of the 1790s", potentially to record an important change in the sitters' family history.

The main mystery remains the identity of the sitters. The picture depicts a relatively young woman surrounded by three male characters, two of which (at least) appear to be her children. The third figure, crowning the composition in the background, is uncertain: while it could be the woman's husband, it could also be argued he is her eldest son (or step-son), born with some time apart from his youngest siblings. The only element we hold for certain is the fact that he is a flautist, and that his love of music is a salient feature of his persona as he wished it to be recorded holding his beloved instrument. Mr. Kidson believes the portrait is likely that of Mrs. Joanna Rumbold (1753-1823) and her three children, commissioned directly to Romney, and recorded in the artist's ledger as dating from the period 1777-81. The second wife of the East India Company director Thomas Rumbold, Joanne Rumbold was the daughter of Bishop Edmund Law of Carlisle, an important patron of Romney who could have been the one commissioning the work to the artist, and who made sure it would be finished, even a decade after. Romney is known for having completed portraits of Rumbold's husband and of her eldest step-son in the late 1770s, but the present group portrait of Joanna surrounded by her three children, documentary evidence suggests, was left unfinished after 1781.

Kidson himself raises two arguments to counterbalance this promising theory. According to Romney’s own ledger, the present work is recorded as being stolen in the 1780s. If that was the case, his having been said to rework the painting in the 1790s may be a less likely scenario. Then, the so-called portrait of Joanna Rumbold and her children was recorded as a full-length composition (90 x 60 in.), which does not match the size of the present work, unless we consider that when Romney reworked it, he also cut it down to a half-length portrait. Finally, and this is perhaps the most troubling element: when the picture was originally recorded in 1777-1781, the main figure among Mrs. Rumbold's children was recorded as being a girl, presumptively the mother's fifteen year-old step-daughter. This means that significant changes among the children must have occurred between then and the 1790s: Did the teenage girl pass away? Was she replaced by Mrs. Rumbold's step-son instead? Mr. Kidson believes it is possible but at this stage, and without any further documentation, the mystery remains, which forces the viewer to concentrate on the domestic felicity displayed among the members of this anonymous family group, and to admire Romney's fresh coloring and subtle, yet vigorous, impasto, which suggests both the strength of character and liveliness of all four models.


The relined canvas in overall fair condition. Examination under UV light reveals a thick, milky, layer of old greenish varnish throughout. Extensive restoration on the sitters' faces. Luckily, none of their eyes are altered. We see inpainting on the woman's cheeks and chin, on the tall man's forehead and cheeks, as well as the younger man's entire jaw. The baby is spared, save for two areas of restoration (most likely repairs) underneath his chin (on the garnment), and to the left of it (baby's right shoulder). Scattered areas of restoration also visible in the background at upper center and upper right corner (along the top right outer edge), at center left (on the man's extended arm, as well as his fingers grasping the flute). Some more visible at bottom center, at the bottom on the woman's dress. See Specialist's images for more details.

To request access to the images, or for any additional information, please email Raphael Chatroux at rchatroux@freemansauction.com.

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