This atmospheric painting of a sleeping boy is by George Romney, one of the leading English artists of the late-18th century, and has recently emerged from a private house where it had hung for almost 100 years.

In this work we can observe Romney’s supreme confidence when painting the human figure. A series of long, sweeping strokes in pinkish tones define the contours of the body, and the fingers are suggested through only a few quick strokes. The head of the sleeping child – the main focal point of the painting - is sensitively rendered, whilst other areas such as the feet are left largely unresolved. These unfinished areas add to the overall dynamicity of the composition, and in parts of the background we catch a more candid glimpse of Romney’s energetic style than a highly finished work would otherwise allow. To the left of the child’s head, for example, pure artistic spontaneity is found in the form of...

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This atmospheric painting of a sleeping boy is by George Romney, one of the leading English artists of the late-18th century, and has recently emerged from a private house where it had hung for almost 100 years.

In this work we can observe Romney’s supreme confidence when painting the human figure. A series of long, sweeping strokes in pinkish tones define the contours of the body, and the fingers are suggested through only a few quick strokes. The head of the sleeping child – the main focal point of the painting - is sensitively rendered, whilst other areas such as the feet are left largely unresolved. These unfinished areas add to the overall dynamicity of the composition, and in parts of the background we catch a more candid glimpse of Romney’s energetic style than a highly finished work would otherwise allow. To the left of the child’s head, for example, pure artistic spontaneity is found in the form of a cluster of playful strokes in dark red paint.

As suggested by Alex Kidson in his seminal catalogue of Romney’s oil paintings, this work is stylistically comparable with a number of paintings of children by Romney undertaken during the early 1790s, including ‘The Bashful Child’ (whereabouts unknown) and ‘The Shy Child’ (private collection).[1] It is known that Romney made a number of informal studies of children at this date and it is possible these works influenced his decision to include children in some of his later subject pictures.[2] The loose, sketchy handling and warm tonality of the boy’s features can also be compared with Romney’s subject painting known as ‘Boys in a boat drifting out to sea’ (private collection) painted slightly earlier in the mid-1780s and left unfinished.[3]

This portrait remained in the possession of the artist and after his death it was sold at auction as ‘A Sleeping Boy’. It was exhibited in 1894 at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London and was then included by Thomas Humphry Ward and William Roberts in their definitive catalogue raisonné of Romney’s work published in 1904. In the catalogue, the owner is given as Charles Lawrence, 1st Baron Lawrence of Kingsgate, and the previous owner is stated as John Julius Angerstein, the great art connoisseur whose collection later formed the nucleus of The National Gallery, London. The painting was then sold at auction in 1935 and soon after it entered the collection of Charles Nall-Cain, 1st Baron Brocket, and remained in the possession of the family until 2017.

[1] Kidson, A. 2015. George Romney: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 3 volumes, (Newhaven and London: Yale University Press). Vol.3, nos.1711 & 1716, pp.767-769

[2] Ibid, no.1711, p.767

[3] Ibid, no.1756, p.812

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500 Years of British Art