Romney’s interest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be traced back to the mid-1780s, in a series of four slight pencil studies that appear in a sketchbook he was using in late 1786 and early 1787 (Courtauld Gallery, London),3 three of which relate quite closely to the composition of the present work. The artist’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare had long been nurtured by his friends and connections in the theatrical and literary worlds and after twenty years of creative engagement with King Lear and Macbeth, in the mid-1780s Romney began widening his familiarity with the bard’s other works; the main catalysts for this appears to have been his introduction to Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton), then mistress of his longstanding patron Charles Greville. Given the date of these initial sketches it seems likely that Romney’s interest in Titania was kindled by the news – printed in The Times in January 1787 – that Henry Fuseli had chosen a subject from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first of his contributions to Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. Romney had been a pivotal figure in the foundation of the Shakespeare Gallery in 1786, and he and Fuseli’s longstanding reciprocal interest in each other’s work can be traced back to 1774 when both men had been part of the British community of artists working in Rome.
The lack of respect shown by his fellow artist to The Tempest, Romney’s own contribution to Boydell’s gallery, saw him instinctively withdraw into a more intimate and poetic mood in this later group of Titania paintings. Consequently not one of his paintings on this subject was exhibited during the artist’s lifetime, and all seven are characterised by an avoidance of high finish and a preference for minimal figural groupings, which did not require elaborate exegesis (in sharp contrast to Fuseli’s treatment of the play). From his earliest Midsummer Night’s Dream paintings – Titania, Puck and the Changeling (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), in which the figure of Titania was modelled from the life on Emma Hart, and Titania Reposing with her Indian Votaries (Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-on-Avon) painted in 1791–92 – The Indian Woman, completed in the spring of 1793, brings Romney full circle, back to his first engagement with the play in the mid-1780s, and, as Kidson has suggested, ‘it is tempting to wonder whether this picture was always the goal of Romney’s Midsummer Night’s Dream campaign’.4 Recapturing the emotional charge that had first spurred him to take up the subject, but applying the lessons learned in painting the others, particularly with regard to the role played by colour and atmosphere, it is little wonder that the painting was so well received by contemporary critics.
The Indian Woman was bought for 300 guineas in 1797 direct from Romney’s studio by William Beckford, the great aesthete, collector and patron of the arts and subject of one of Romney’s most ambitious portraits (National Trust, Upton House), for Fonthill Abbey. It is interesting to note that it is the only one of his Midsummer Night’s Dream paintings that Romney sold during his lifetime, suggesting he gave it prominence above all others. The picture, however, as well calculated to appeal to Beckford, with it musky, magical atmosphere and unorthodox poetry, and the latter’s high standing as a connoisseur, secured the painting’s contemporary reputation as one of Romney’s greatest masterpieces. Following a visit to Fonthill in 1801, the critic John Britton, in his Beauties of Wiltshire, described the work at some length as ‘quite magical’ and praised its ‘glowing atmosphere’. In Romney’s obituary in the European Magazine in 1803 the picture was also singled out for particular mention and when Beckford’s collection was sold in 1807 the auctioneer, Philips, described it as ‘the chef d’œuvre of that distinguished artist’.5
1. From a letter of March 1794 to his son, John Romney, quoted in Kidson, 2011, p. 18.
2. Kidson 2011, p. 11.
3. Courtauld Institute, D. 1952, RW 2503, fols 13r, 20r, 20v and 21r.
4. Kidson 2011, p. 18.
5. Kidson 2015, p. 773.
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