When a fashionable society artist met a strikingly beautiful and expressive young woman, the shockwaves would continue for years to come.
Artist on tour
During the 1760s George Romney (1734–1802) left his family in Cumbria and moved to London to establish himself as a successful portraitist. During the 1770s he undertook a Grand Tour of Europe studying great artists of the past, before returning to London and opening a new studio in fashionable Cavendish Square. Making skilled and flattering portraits of stiff society sitters, however, didn’t inspire Romney’s creative spirit. In 1782 the arrival at his studio of Emma, an adaptable, unknown and beautiful model, was like a breath of fresh air.
Aged 16, Emma’s life had not been easy. As a girl with no education, money or status, she was at the mercy of the men who surrounded her. She had already been abandoned by one lover, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, when she fell pregnant with his child and was forced to give up the baby. Now Greville, Fetherstonhaugh’s friend, had agreed to take Emma into his ‘protection’ as his mistress. He installed Emma in a house in Edgware Road where she was expected to follow rigid rules about her conduct and live a respectable life away from society’s prying eyes.
Greville was keen for his friend Romney to paint his beautiful young mistress. He took Emma to Romney’s studio for the first time in 1782.
Romney was enthralled by how Emma could so easily become a dizzying array of historical and mythological characters and, in a few short years, he turned out painting after painting of her (no fewer than 70 were begun). She became the face of her time. Princes and wealthy patrons sought out her image in oils while print reproductions of her became popular for the middle classes to purchase.
"Her features, like the language of Shakespeare, could exhibit all the feelings of nature and all the gradation of every passion with a most fascinating truth and felicity of expression." William Hayley
A true collaboration
It would be wrong to think that Emma’s contribution was just her pretty face. It was her passion, understanding and ability as a model that made her so vital to the creative partnership. Emma was naturally quick to learn and able to adapt her body and expressions to capture the essence of each character she represented. Her beauty, natural warmth and quick wit ensured Romney’s devotion to her but it was her innate talent that sustained and defined this artistic collaboration over many years.
With her help, Romney had reached beyond the stifling constraints of painting London’s society.
The mysterious but somewhat famous Miss Hart
Emma was not even out of her teens when she had become the talk of the town. She prefigured our modern celebrity culture by becoming famous first as an image, rather than being painted because she was already a person of noted accomplishments or highly born. Indeed, it is said she was one of the most painted women of her time.
What Emma did next would turn posing into an art form in its own right, and her story - rather than just her looks - would captivate the nation and beyond.