This is a study for Romney's enormous depiction of the first act of Shakespeare's The Tempest, his first and most ambitious contribution to Boydell's celebrated Shakespeare Gallery. The original painting, the largest painting he ever completed, was destroyed in the 1950's and only a few heavily restored fragments survive. However there are several sketches of the head of Miranda for which Emma Hamilton sat before her departure for Naples in March 1786.
The idea for a gallery devoted entirely of paintings with Shakespearian subjects was first discussed in 1786 at a dinner in Romney's house in Cavendish Square, and was more precisely formed on 4th November. Alderman John Boydell undertook to commission works from English artists and Romney, who had already painted several Shakespearian subjects, agreed to paint The Tempest for him for a fee of 600 guineas. The early stage of the composition, represented in two drawings in the Fitzwilliam Museum, showed only Miranda, Prospero and Caliban, with Miranda standing to the left of her father looking right (a sketch of Miranda for this original composition is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). However Romney's friend Hayley encouraged him to alter it into something closer to a history picture with the figure of Caliban removed and a shipwreck with numerous figures introduced to the left of the canvas. In the final picture Miranda stands to the right of her father looking up at him. Romney records the moment in Act 1, Scene 2 of the play when she begs her father to save the sailors shipwrecked in the storm which he has conjured up by his magic powers: 'If by your art my dearest father, you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them'.
Romney's association with the beautiful Emma Hart began in 1782 when Charles Grenville, her lover, brought her to the artist's studio. Romney was overwhelmed by her beauty, and in the four years until her departure for Naples on 14th March 1786, he painted her in numerous guises. Many of his sketches of her became the basis of fancy pictures.
As Richard Dorment has pointed out (see below), there is a certain irony in Romney's decision to paint Emma Hamilton as Miranda in the light of her later life. Grenville sent her to Naples to live in the care of his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the ambassador to the Court of Naples and a great scholar. He looked after her rather as Prospero cared for Miranda, though in September 1791 she became his wife. Admiral Horatio Nelson arrived at the Bay of Naples and, as with Ferdinand in The Tempest, won Emma's heart and began a love affair which only ended with Nelson's death in 1805.
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