A Fine Genre Painting by William Arthur Breakspeare Depicting the Fictional Meeting of Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton in the Studio of the Painter George Romney

14th February 2023


The Samuel Aronoff Gallery, Cincinnati, Ohio

A private American collection

A Fine Genre Oil Painting by William Arthur Breakspeare Depicting the Fictional Meeting of Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton in the Studio of the Painter George Romney, 1883.
A Fine Genre Oil Painting by William Arthur Breakspeare Depicting the Fictional Meeting of Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton in the Studio of the Painter George Romney, 1883.

The painting depicts Lady Hamilton sitting to Romney for her portrait, the proceedings interrupted by the arrival of Lord Nelson. The meeting would never have happened but the subject gripped the public imagination, particularly in the late Victorian period after a successful play was written which hinged around this very scenario. The play, titled variously The Enchantress or Nelson’s Enchantress by Risden Howe was based on an earlier Neapolitan play which, in typical 19th century moralising fashion, depicted Nelson and Emma Hamilton as the “bad” characters in the play. The play opened in London in 1897 and then toured the country.

Clearly the interior of Romney’s studio fascinated Breakspeare as it featured in at least two of his works. Another painting titled Chez Romney when it appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1896 appears to be the same work later titled In Romney’s Studio in Cassell’s Magazine in 1904 (see below) and then titled Chez Romney once more when exhibited again in 1911. It depicts a female model, probably Emma Hamilton, draped on a chair with a guitar behind her but the figure of Nelson is absent.

Our painting is recorded in two important works on Nelson, Roger King’s The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievements of Horatio Nelson where the author discusses the fact that the painting is entirely fictionalised and places it in the context of many other works from this period that also sought to use Nelson’s image some 70 years after his death. The painting is also discussed by Stephen Deucher in his chapter in Nelson: An Illustrated History. The painting sold at Sotheby’s Belgravia on the 7th of October 1980 (lot 142) for an enormous £1300 and the author learned about the painting at this time.

Breakspeare appears to have painted a study for our painting which appeared at auction in the early part of this century. This much smaller piece depicts the same three central figures but the poses are different and the rug on the floor is a simpler fabric example-not the tiger skin in the present piece. The study is fairly highly finished and so suggests that the artist liked this subject and wished to return to it later, producing this much more accomplished piece at that time.

History and genre painting of this sort is so fascinating because it manages to tell us so much about the time in which it was produced, whilst ostensibly representing events from the past. Here we have Lady Hamilton dressed in clothing that would have adorned the fashionably dressed Victorians that Breakspeare might have encountered in London society and the overall effect is utterly charming.

W. A. Breakspeare

Born in Birmingham in 1856, Breakspeare was the son of a well-regarded flower painter who worked for one of the city’s many japanning factories, adding decoration to their wares. Initially William followed the same path but in 1877 he began formal art school training at the Birmingham School of Art. His talent was soon discovered and in 1881 he won the Gold Medal at the Academies and Institutes National Competition of the Works of Schools of Art for an artistic nude. This encouraged him to move to London and he also visited Paris and Belgium, studying with Charles Verlat in Antwerp in the process. 

Breakspeare was a founding member of the Birmingham Art Circle and regularly exhibited there and at the Royal Academy in London. He exhibited frequently at the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils, the RBA and with the London dealer Dowdeswell with whom he showed 98 paintings during his lifetime including some single artist exhibitions. His works are in museum and private collections worldwide, including the Russell-Coates Museum in Bournemouth-one of the great collections of Victorian art-and Birmingham Museums Trust. He is also represented in the collection of the New Art Gallery, Walsall, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia. His work was widely reproduced in newspapers and magazines during his lifetime, including as the frontispiece to Cassell’s Magazine in May of 1904 (one of the other Romney studio scenes). 

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