Romney was born in Dalton-on-Furness, the son of a cabinet-maker. He was apprenticed for two years to a travelling portrait painter, Christopher Steele. After working independently in Kendal and Lancaster, Romney moved to London in 1762, hoping to become a history painter. This was unrealistic and by the early 1770s he was established as one of the capital's leading portraitists. At 38 he spent two years in Italy which refired his ambition to be a history painter. On returning to London, he was the main rival to Reynolds and Gainsborough and more fashionable than either. He painted many portraits of Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, who represented his feminine ideal.