George Romney. The Tempest, c.1790.

Engraving from Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. The original, 17.25 x 23.25 inches, is now owned by the Bolton Art Gallery, Bolton, England.

This engraving was done by B. Smith after the painting by Romney. The original painting upon which the engraving is based was destroyed in a fire, but the canvas, measuring almost fifteen by ten feet, was judged a failure. Prospero and Miranda stand a short and improbable distance from the shore and the roiling sea and watch the shipwreck with its posed and frozen figures struggling against the tempest. The characters all seem detached from one another, and even Miranda, who pleads at this moment for Prospero to allay the wild waters, looks off in the distance, while her father casts his eyes upwards away from her. Lord Thurlow proved prophetic when he said of Romney's commission to do the painting, "By God, he'll make a balderdash business of it." Thurlow also advised Romney to read Shakespeare before he tried to paint him (Dorment 320).

The early studies and sketches for the painting did not predict failure, but Romney worked better with portraits and smaller studies than he did with the grand style of history painting. Look, for example, at his study Emma Hart as Miranda (1785-86), an oil on canvas, 14 x 15.5 inches, from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Richard Dorment has an excellent discussion of this painting (320-24), suggesting that it may have been a study from life during a period when he often painted Emma Hart, a young lady who was, Dorment says, "not exactly an actress, just as she was not exactly a prostitute." Romney knew her before she left England for Naples, where she eventually married Sir William Hamilton. She later became the lover of Admiral Horatio Nelson in an affair that has become legendary. This painting shows what Romney might have done with the subject had he not had as his ambitious goal the large painting. Here Miranda looks beseechingly upwards, lips parted, her expression one of concern and pleading as she urges her father to calm the tempestuous seas. Romney has clearly captured the emotions of Miranda in a way that was not transferred to the final canvas.

Dorment ends his remarks on Romney with a fanciful and personal interpretation of the relationship between The Tempest and Romney's painting Miranda. It is worth quoting in full.

In the light of Emma's subsequent fate, Romney's decision to paint her as Miranda in the opening act of The Tempest is one of the little ironies of history. In 1786 the impoverished Greville [her lover when she met Romney] dispatched his Miranda to Naples to the care of his elderly uncle Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), ambassador to the court of Naples. A kindly widower and scholar (an archaeologist and volcanologist), Sir William could easily have been cast in the role of the magician Prospero. He took Emma in, first, as his mistress, later, in September 1791, as his wife. As the wife of the British Minister to Naples during the first decade of the Napoleonic Wars, and as the intimate friend of the Bourbon Queen Caroline, Marie Antoinette's sister, Lady Hamilton played her part in, and perhaps influenced, the history of Europe. Then, to complete the (imperfect) analogy to the story of The Tempest, Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), like Ferdinand in Shakespeare's play, sailed into the Bay of Naples and won Emma's heart. Their love affair, apparently condoned by Sir William, was the talk of Europe and lasted until Nelson's death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. By that time Romney, the Caliban of the story, was also dead. There is little doubt that he had always loved Emma but never possessed her. His hundreds of portraits of her, of which Miranda is one of the finest, must, finally, be seen as his way of holding on to this remarkable woman. (324)