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George Romney, 1734–1802

Howard Visiting a Prison

between 1790 and 1794
Black and gray wash with black ink over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper
Sheet: 12 1/2 x 20 1/8 inches (31.8 x 51.1 cm)

Inscribed in graphite, lower right: "1132"

Circular collector's mark: Xavier Haas (Lugt 4541); oval collector's mark: Xavier Haas (Lugt 4542)

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Richardson Dilworth, B.A. 1938
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
cloth | correctional institution | figure study | genre subject | men | nudes | prison | prisoners | woman
Accessible by appointment in the Study Room [Request]
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IIIF Manifest:

These drawings by Romney and Dighton [B1979.12.667 and B1986.29.373] represent two approaches to contemporary history: one looking to the generalizing and universalizing of Grand Manner history painting, the other arising from the world of caricature.
From the 1770s the philanthropist John Howard campaigned for the reform of prison conditions first in England and Wales and later in Europe. He toured prisons throughout the Continent, finally dying in Russia in 1790 from a fever contracted during one of his prison visits. Howard had declined to be painted by Romney in 1785; but after Howard's death, Romney set to work on what he hoped would be a series of paintings celebrating Howard's heroic efforts in alleviating human misery. In the early 1790s Romney produced a series of powerful drawings of nightmarish prison scenes in which Howard's experiences are transmuted into universal images of anguish and despair. Although Romney was one of the most fashionable society portrait painters of eighteenth-century England, success in the area of art he most valued - history painting - eluded him. As with so many of his other ambitious plans for history paintings, his projected paintings of Howard visiting prisons never progressed beyond these drawings.
On August 2, 1786, a mentally disturbed woman named Margaret Nicholson tried to stab George III; the monarch, escaping unharmed, pardoned his assailant, who was confined to Bethlehem Hospital. Dighton's drawing is a piece of visual reportage, attempting to convey the actual appearance of the attempted assassination. For Dighton, the son of a printseller and himself a caricaturist and printseller, topicality and timeliness were of the essence. The print after the drawing was published just three days after the assault. Although there is nothing of caricature in his description of the attack on the king, neither is there any attempt to render the scene heroic or timeless.

Scott Wilcox

Scott Wilcox, Line of beauty : British drawings and watercolors of the eighteenth century, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2001, p. 50, cat. no. 38, NC228 W53 2001 (YCBA)

Art in Focus : John Flaxman Modeling Bust of William Hayley (Yale Center for British Art, 2010-02-04 - 2010-05-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

The Line of Beauty : British Drawings and Watercolors of the Eighteenth Century (Yale Center for British Art, 2001-05-19 - 2001-08-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Smith College Museum of Art, The drawings of George Romney ; an exhibition held from May to September 1962 at the Smith College Museum of Art , Northampton, Mass., Northampton, MA, 1962, cat. no. 82, NJ18 R65 S46 [ORBIS]

Scott Wilcox, Line of beauty : British drawings and watercolors of the eighteenth century, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2001, p. 50, cat. no 38, NC228 W53 2001 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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