Prisons and philanthropy 1790–92
Through many of Romney’s friendships and, more privately, in his art there runs the theme of a shared awareness of the misfortune of others. Amidst the swelling wealth of the age, a result of colonial expansion and world trade, there was a growing public awareness of social problems: one object of the Society of Artists’ exhibitions in the 1760s was ‘for the relief of distressed artists, their widows and children’. There are an estimated five hundred drawings in Romney’s series, many of which depict a ‘jumbled mass of wretched humanity’ looking towards their deliverer. They stress most powerfully the horror of Howard’s exposure of the treatment of half-naked, ill and dying prisoners. Thomas Paine himself was said to be safe only in four houses in London: William Sharp’s, Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s, Mary Wollstonecraft’s and Romney’s. Benjamin West, like Romney, experienced divided allegiances as an American who had entertained Paine but who had strong links with the royal family.