George Romney

John Howard Visiting a Lazaretto


Not on display

George Romney 1734–1802
Ink and graphite on paper
Support: 343 × 489 mm
frame: 620 × 866 × 20 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

From 1773 onwards John Howard (1726-90) devoted himself to inspecting prisons and plague hospitals (lazarettos) throughout Britain and Europe. He campaigned tirelessly for the humane treatment of their inmates. His book 'The State of the Prisons' appeared in 1777, published by the radical Joseph Johnson who later on published Wollstonecraft (nos.20,23), and employed Blake (nos.23,25). Howard's progressive views were one sign of the growing pressure for social reform which culminated in the French Revolution of 1789. Romney set out to celebrate Howard's heroism in a large picture, but some of the reformer's concerns and descriptions of gaol conditions find a distinct echo in Blake's work (nos.2,8m,o).

Gallery label, July 1994

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Catalogue entry


Pen and iron gall ink and wash over pencil on hand-made laid paper 13 1/2 × 19 1/4 (343 × 490), edges uneven

Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1982

Prov: ...; private collection, Paris, from which purchased through Stephen Somerville by Christopher Powney, from whom purchased by the Tate Gallery

John Howard, philanthropist and self-appointed inspector of prisons from c.1773 until his death in 1790, travelled widely in England and abroad visiting prisons, hospitals, lazarettos and workhouses. His State of The Prisons in England and Wales was first published in 1777, and his Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe in 1789. Among the many objects of his concern was the high incidence of plague, smallpox and fever in prisons and lazarettos.

For Romney's meditations, over several years, on the ‘scenes of human wretchedness’ reported in Howard's surveys, see Patricia Jaffé, Drawings by George Romney from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the catalogue of an exhibition shown at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1977 (and at Kenwood and various centres outside London in 1978). Romney evidently intended to paint at least one oil painting of Howard visiting a lazaretto, but did not do so; Mrs Jaffé (pp.58–9) quotes the artist's son Revd John Romney as writing, in 1818, of ‘two or three large pictures, wch. Mr R. intended to have painted’, modifying this in 1830 to ‘one or two large pictures which Mr Romney intended to have painted’.

Romney made numerous sketches and studies of the subject. Mrs Jaffé considers that ‘the compositions probably do not illustrate particular incidents, but are generalized pictures of the miseries of pestilence ridden lazarettos’ (p.58). The Fitzwilliam Museum's 1977 exhibition included ‘Figures in a Lazaretto’ (no.94), described by Mrs Jaffé as an early version on the theme, and seven drawings, each called ‘Howard visiting a lazaretto’ (nos.95–100b, most of them repr. pls.43–6). Nine of the Fitzwilliam Museum's ‘Howard drawings’ were included in the bound volume of his father's drawings presented by the Revd John Romney in 1818. Others were included in the large group of Romney drawings purchased by the Museum in 1874; Mrs Jaffé notes (p.60) that some of these appear to have come from sketch-books and that two pages, probably from the same sketch-book, were on the London art market in 1968.

Mrs Jaffé notes (p.60) that ‘it would be a long job to list all comparable drawings from sketch-books’, but records two particular sources for ‘Howard drawings’: ‘a sketch-book, broken up, probably, in the 1920s, by F.R. Meatyard’ (p.58) and a sketch-book dated ‘August 1792’ on the front cover, ‘formerly in the collection of Kenneth Garlick (sold Sotheby's and subsequently broken up in the summer of 1963)’ (pp.59–60). The Fitzwilliam Museum's ‘Howard drawings’ are of various sizes; no.98 in the 1977 exhibition (14 1/8 × 19 1/2in), from the group purchased in 1874, some of which had evidently come from sketch-books, most nearly corresponds to the size of T03547, whose early provenance is unknown, but which may also have come from a sketch-book. Elizabeth Romney's sale at Christie's, 24–25 May 1894, which included numerous lots of unspecified drawings, should also perhaps be considered as a possible (but unverifiable) source for T03547. (We are indebted to Mrs Jaffé for discussing this drawing, and for suggesting its dating as c. 1791–2.)

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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