By MICHAEL CAINES
Thomas Chatterton wasn't the only young man struggling to make a living in London in the 1760s. The painter George Romney was likewise trying to make his mark and not getting very far. Eventually, his determination paid off, however, and in later years he had to adapt his working methods in order to keep up with the demand for portraits. These were lucrative labours that came at a high personal cost: as time went on, his health suffered and he found it difficult to carry out his schemes for paintings on a grander scale, on historical and literary themes. Such ambitions mattered deeply in the art world of the time. As Norma Clarke put it in the TLS: "It is a commonplace that history painting was vaunted as the most elevated pictorial endeavour, but it might be more accurate to say that it consolidated the mythical stories the nation was telling itself".
The sketch above is one in a sequence from the early 1790s that testifies to Romney's passion for Shakespeare: it depicts the banquet scene from the third act of Macbeth (the one with Banquo's gatecrashing ghost). It also stands in, intriguingly, for the implicit finished painting itself, which Romney was never to execute . . . .