Face value

Art - Emily Mann on the 18th-century equivalent of the celebrity photo-shoot

''It is amazing how fond the English are of having their portraits drawn," observed a Swiss miniaturist in 1755. That is certainly the impression one gets from a visit to the exhibition of paintings and drawings by George Romney (1734-1802) at the National Portrait Gallery.

The show, marking the bicentenary of Romney's death, charts his rise from provincial artist to London society painter, aiming to rescue his reputation from the shadows of success cast by his better-remembered contemporaries Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. The exhibition also highlights the dilemma that confronted many artists of the time: the gulf between their artistic ambitions and what the punters wanted to fill that spot in the entrance hall, on the staircase or above the mantelpiece in their town or country houses.

Romney's career, largely dictated by fashionable society's passion for portraits, provides an insight into the demands and constraints of the art market in 18th-century England. We learn that artists were seldom their own boss, free to express their creativity and imagination, but rather were servants to the patrons of art.

As with the public art exhibitions of Romney's day, the walls of the current show are dominated by the faces of the well-mannered and well-monied. In a world with a burgeoning wealthy class, but without society photographers and Hello! magazine, the portrait painter was evidently much sought after. And in most cases his product was no less public than today's celebrity photo-shoot: from its inception, when the subject commonly arrived for a sitting accompanied by an entourage (a sort of performance art in itself) to the finished painting's exhibition (where "creatures of high-life" crowded to "compliment each other on their own gaudy countenance") to commissions for copies and prints of the original.

Just as photos of celebrities have an appeal far beyond their friends and family, these 18th-century portraits were intended not merely to provide their owners with a good likeness of their nearest and dearest - indeed, the portrait painter Henry-Pierre Danloux was able to say that he admired Romney "despite the truly defective likeness of his models . . ."

Portraiture was something of a national language in the 18th century, well and widely understood. Art, then as now, was a luxury good. The very act of having a portrait painted was a display of wealth and status, and portraits often sought to elevate their sitters further - as did Romney's Mrs Henry Verelst and The Warren Family - removing them from the nitty-gritty realities of everyday life, often investing them with an air of nobility and gravitas by adding classicising robes and backdrops.

Portraits reflected and reinforced cultural values, reaffirming the different spheres occupied by the sitters. Men appear "decided and grand"; women "lovely". Such distinctions are particularly evident in Romney's child portraits. The Charteris Children is divided in two by a tree trunk in the background. On one side, the boy grasps the string of his kite and, with his dog looking up at him obediently, turns purposefully away from the viewer, out into the landscape beyond. While he is off for adventure outdoors, his sisters are going nowhere: they are sheltered from the outside world, seated and passive, sweet and vacant.

When Romney arrived in London from the north-west in 1762, he was just one of a hundred or so portrait painters in the capital. In 1783, at the height of his career, he recorded a total of 593 sittings and was, this exhibition claims, more fashionable than Reynolds or Gainsborough. Romney ensured his popularity by being cheaper and less exclusive than his main competitors. He was also somewhat speedier, said to have painted "more in one hour than Sir Joshua did in ten".

His success in the face-painting business made him wealthy and raised his own status, as well as that of his sitters. But ultimately it did not satisfy him as an artist. "This cursed portrait painting!" he lamented. "How I am shackled with it!" Like Reynolds, Romney had always hoped to be more than a "mere mechanik", and to succeed as a history painter - producing narrative works whose subjects derived from the characters and events of history, mythology and literature. But such was portraiture's hold over the public's purses that there was little demand for these lofty works, which are notably lacking in this exhibition.

Romney managed to indulge his interests in history painting in some of his grand portraits - for example, in his painting of Elizabeth Warren as Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth. However, Romney's imaginative creativity was largely confined to the preparatory stage, and his drawings - to which a whole room of this show is devoted - offer a fascinating glimpse of the artist he might have been had he not remained so reliant on portrait painting for an income. Often intense and haunting, his sketches were more like a hobby, a subversive act, than a professional concern.

Throughout his career, Romney painted more than 2,000 portraits. There was little time for more unearthly matters, and it is no surprise that, after Romney's death, one friend and patron described him as "a man worn out before his time".

"George Romney 1734-1802" is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) until 18 August