This painting came up for sale at John Moran in Pasadena last week with a temptingly low estimate of $1,500 – 2,500. The carved frame, which looks original, must be worth close to that on its own.
(c) John Moran auctions
It is a bust copy of George Romney’s full-length portrait of Anne Viscountess Townshend, formerly with Richard Feigen in New York.
(c) Richard Feigen
The original was painted in 1794, but it remained in Romney’s studio for the next five years, during which time – as Alex Kidson explains in the catalogue notes when this painting was sold as ‘Circle of Romney’ at Bonhams San Francisco – Romney would set it for his favourite pupils as a piece to copy.
The John Moran portrait is such an arresting image, a beautiful, terrifically smart portrait. And, since it could well be an in-studio copy of the original, it has art historical ‘legs’. Auction houses apply the term ‘Circle of’ quite broadly. A ‘circle of’ might just be a contemporary copy, by an artist who may not actually have darkened the master’s door. But here we do seem to be dealing with a copy produced in Romney’s painting-room, at his suggestion and no doubt critiqued by him afterwards.
If so, I wonder which one of Romney’s later pupils did it? In his last years he taught three young Cumbrian painters, Isaac Pocock, James Lonsdale and Thomas Stewardson. From online comparisons I’d put my money on Thomas Stewardson (1781 – 1859)
Thomas Stewardson Self-portrait (c) Warrington Museum and Art Gallery
The smooth handling, the blend of Romney with the creamy smoothness of Lawrence, and the distinct pin-curled hair – where the hair on Romney’s original is typically loose and scumbled – compare well with a work like Stewardson’s Anne and Margaret Ainslie 1808.
(c) Lakeland Arts Trust
Stewardson had a very successful career. His sitters included King George III, the Prince of Wales – he was described as ‘Painter to HRH the Prince of Wales’ in the 1811 Royal Academy catalogue – and the Prime Minister George Canning. He exhibited eighty-three paintings at the RA between 1803 and 1825, when it seems that he began to suffer from the ill-health which forced him to give up painting. This is a sad end to such a promising beginning. Fortunately he must have invested his early success wisely, and when he died in his seventy-eighth year it was at his house in Pall Mall and surrounded by his picture collection. (DNB)
The John Moran painting that I’m tentatively attributing to him – or at least saying he’s the first artist I’d look at – sold for $1,700 hammer, just above lower estimate. I’m amazed that such a beautiful painting can sell so low. Name commands price. Of course it does. If Lady Townshend were a second version by Romney she would be worth ten times as much at least. Because it’s by a pupil who’s less well known today, even if it was painted with Romney looking over his shoulder, a superb, opulent work like this is a knock-down bargain. I hope the buyer appreciates it, and I look forward to seeing if it resurfaces with the attribution it deserves.