George Romney (1734-1802) was born near Dalton in Furness, the son of John Rumney (1703-1778), a furniture maker and joiner, and Ann Rumney (1704-1759). Romney received little formal education. From the age of seven to ten he attended school at Dendron returning to a new home his father had built above Barrow in Furness to work in the joinery business. The education he received from this point onward was largely self-taught.
In 1755 he left his father's home to become the apprentice in Kendal of the painter Christopher Steele, receiving a solid grounding in the techniques of painting and also developing from him a liking for high, fresh colour. In October 1756 Romney married Mary Abbot (1725-1823), the daughter of his landlady, who was pregnant with his child. Soon after the marriage Steele took Romney to York and then to Lancaster, there they parted and Romney returned to Kendal to meet his son John who had been born in his absence. He remained in Kendal from 1757 to 1762 making a local name for himself. In 1762 twenty of Romney's fancy pictures and copies of old masters were offered as prizes in a lottery which he had organised, dividing the proceeds of the lottery with his wife he left Kendal for London. His wife remained in Kendal with their children, John and Ann who had been born in 1760 and who died in 1763.
Romney arrived in London on 21 March 1762 with the aim of acquiring material success and artistic fame. He was not successful at first for a variety of reasons one of them being that he sought to establish himself as a history painter. In 1764 he visited Paris and on his return changed his name from Rumney to Romney, lack of business saw his return to the north-west for periods of time during 1765 and 1767 where he was able to earn funds. His return to London from his second trip north saw him move to lodgings in Great Newport Street; this was in the artists' community around Covent Garden. Two paintings he completed in 1768 and 1769, 'Leigh Family' and 'The Warren Family' established Romney as one of Joshua Reynolds' rivals. The early 1770s he painted more fluently and with increasing assurance on a large scale. He was also receiving his first commissions from aristocratic families; it is thought he made £1200 in 1772.
In March 1773 Romney left for Italy with Ozias Humphry, with Romney using the trip to enhance his credibility with influential patrons. He was away from Britain for over two years, arriving back on 1 July 1775 to discover that rival Thomas Gainsborough had moved from Bath to London. In November 1775 Romney took the lease on a large house in the fashionable Cavendish Square and soon received commissions from a number of influential people. Romney charged below the rates of Reynolds and Gainsborough but above those of other artists. Part of his appeal to clients included the privacy and intimacy of his studio and the quickness of his painting, which is evidence after 1775 when he ceased to make preliminary drawings for his portraits, painting straight onto canvas.
A year after moving to Cavendish Square Romney's career had been transformed, for the next twenty years he would be London's most fashionable portrait painter. He would work for up to seven and a half hours a day and sometimes painted every day for weeks on end. This would eventually take its toll on his health, the end result being a series of strokes in the 1790s which curtailed his painting.
In 1782 Romney first painted Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton), she became Romney's favourite model and muse and in a four year period he painted several portraits of her. After she moved to Naples Romney continued to paint her in her absence and when she returned to London for her marriage to Sir William Hamilton in 1791 she sat for him again. After her marriage and subsequent return to Naples Romney never saw her again, her loss can be attributed to the depression he suffered from in the 1790s.
In his later career Romney treated portraiture as a way of maintaining his income, reserving his creative energy for historical and literary designs. Only a small fraction of his ideas were completed though as his health declined. In 1796 he purchased a property in Hampstead moving there in 1798, he only lived there for eight months. In 1799 he left Hampstead to visit the north and never returned, he reconciled with his wife and spent the remaining three years of his life with her in Kendal. He died on 15 November 1802 in Kendal and was buried in Dalton in Furness.
This biographical description is largely based on Alex Kidson, 'Romney, George (1734–1802)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24051, accessed 6 March 2017]