Review of The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in 18th-Century Britainby Kate Retford
The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press, 2017, £45
In itself, the ‘conversation piece’ as an artistic sub-genre of portraiture suggests a genteel discourse in paint wherein an arrangement of static figures form a tableau that speaks of privilege and politesse in agreeably sfumato surroundings. For those who aren’t in thrall to the sight of the long dead upper-crust brandishing their (usually unearned) wealth at the rest of society in a conspicuously hubristic dumb-show, the conversation piece might well seem an elitist irrelevance. On the other hand, others might find themselves surveying these visual records of how the nation’s elect inhabited their country piles and fashionable drawing rooms with those same vague stirrings of national pride brought on by spending too much time in a stately home’s gift shop. According to Kate Retford, however, the conversation piece should actually be understood as “a modern, innovative and complex mode of portraiture,” a claim which she then goes on to substantiate in considerable detail and with an abundance of illustrations in the book under review.
With its origins in the early eighteenth century, the conversation piece came to prominence in a period in which the notion of a British school of artists first began to emerge. Indeed, many of the initial examples of these group portraits featured the clubbable members of the various societies which fostered the communal and cultural conditions for the promotion of this new concept of a singularly British art. By the early 1730s the commissioning of several of these ‘conversations’ by important patrons such as Frederick, Prince of Wales invested such paintings with an advantageously fashionable aura. Not that they gained favour for their immediate aesthetic qualities, however. By and large, early examples were hardly thoroughgoing displays of virtuosity: the physiognomic details of those pictured were rendered with particular ineptitude in several examples. Instead, the real skill demanded of the artist was a facility for “judicious arrangement of figures, construction of narrative and invention of setting,” all of which qualities had their sanction as artistic precepts found in the most impeccable theoretical sources. With all this in mind, artists worth their salt had to avoid cramming the canvas with too many subjects, ensure that they scattered about those who did feature in a pleasing fashion, and show all concerned in agreeable postures.
Such careful orchestration of sitters and spaces raises issues about the types of staging which underpin these works. The stilted, mannequin-like appearance of some figures is exemplified in several works by Arthur Devis, a Lancashire-born painter who achieved metropolitan fame in the mid-1700s. In a Devis painting such as The Bacon Family from 1743, in which adults and children are arranged in a large, nondescript Georgian interior, they all look uncomfortably posed, somewhat startled and with little or no sense of familial connection binding them together as a group. Is Devis’s lack of ability to blame for this, or could it be (as author Peter De Bolla has postulated) the fault of this middle class family, “their faces caught in the perpetual oscillation between embarrassment and satisfaction” —embarrassment at being the subjects of a relatively new culture of display, and satisfaction at enjoying a social position that enabled them to have an artist paint them? This idea of the “theatricalisation of social relations,” in an era in which familiarity with the art and etiquette of conversation as a social attribute was ingrained, is evident in Devis’s work and that of his compeers. Display in terms of clothes, posture and activities portrayed was itself a means of articulating a vocabulary of sociable exchange. In contrast to Devis’s somewhat unremarkable skills in the conversation piece sub-genre, his more enduringly celebrated contemporary William Hogarth took the idea of theatrical display evidenced in his renowned series of ‘modern moral subjects,’ such as Marriage A-la-Mode, and used it to stage his much more accomplished conversation pieces, a prime example being The Indian Emperor or The Conquest of Mexico By the Spaniards in which he depicts the Master of the Mint’s children performing the John Dryden play from which the picture takes its title. Later in the eighteenth century the German artist Johan Zoffany, in works such as The Family of Sir William Young, would experiment with the boundaries between performance and actuality by displaying this British politician’s family enjoying their own private theatricals, with some of them dressed in ‘Van Dyke’ costumes in a gesture of nostalgia towards a long-lost Caroline court —a device which redoubles the idea of conversation piece as masquerade. Although this may have been a more sophisticated display of theatricality or ‘staging’ than that seen in Devis’s The Bacon Family, the sense of conscious performance, the adoption of a certain aesthetic of social ritual, encompasses both examples.
However, setting a conversation piece within a suitably fashionable interior was not always sufficient to exhibit the subjects’ taste, wealth and status. The outdoor setting, which often featured a group of figures with a large country house in the background, spoke in many instances of substantial land ownership and all the high rank and political power which came with it. With its roots in the Netherlandish tableau de mode and Watteau-esque fêtes galantes, the country house prospect, with or without generic figures in the landscape, became popular in the early eighteenth century, as did the more tightly focused gardenscape. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that group portraits in the form of the conversation piece should sometimes be relocated to take advantage of a picturesque exterior scene. Of the examples included in the book that illustrate this trend, the paintings that Edward Haytley produced of the Brockman family at their Beachborough estate in Kent are some of the most engagingly curious examples in terms of the schematic attention to detail with which the artist has given the human figures a detached, collage-like relationship to the landscapes that they inhabit. By doing so, Haytley has imbued these pictures with an oddly pleasing sense of skewed perspective which seems to foreshadow the work of twentieth century Ruralist artist David Inshaw. In contrast to such crisp delineation of detail, Gainsborough’s celebrated Mr and Mrs Andrews is more a patchwork of tonal hues, one which dispenses with the proportioned formalities of the sculpted gardenscape in favour of placing the couple in the midst of the vast expanse of their cultivated acres, thus emphasising the prestige synonymous with their landed status.
Returning to the conversation piece as a record of the way prosperous citizens inhabited the rooms of their well-appointed homes, the display of material goods was another way in which the occupants could exhibit their prosperity. Not that this always had to coincide with a true and accurate account of the actual contents of the interiors themselves. The ever-industrious Arthur Devis painted wealthy Preston woollen draper William Atherton and his wife Lucy in 1744, meticulously rendering not only the silky sheen of his waistcoat and her dress, but also the rich green velvet upholstery, gilt carvings, porcelain urns and mahogany cabinet which furnish the room. In fact, several details of this room seem to have been added by Devis as stock features that can be found in other, similar paintings of his. Furthermore, the landscaped garden seen through the window bears no resemblance to the “maze of small passages, leading to butchers’ shops and the local slaughterhouse” that would have been seen from the real Atherton property, given that it was located on the Market Square in Preston. Devis’s habit of using tried and tested props and backdrops is even more in evidence when his paintings Mr and Mrs Bull from 1747 and Mr and Mrs Dashwood from 1750 are compared side by side, since they feature seated figures posed in virtually identical positions in a room which the Bulls might have just left so that the Dashwoods could come in to sit for the artist. In itself, this practice casts an intriguing light on the relationship between this painter and his clients. Whilst for Devis it could be seen as a form of expediency, in that there was no need for him to make a careful study of his clients’ houses when he could simply use an interior that had proved sufficient before, it perhaps also indicated that people like the Bulls and the Dashwoods were not averse to being portrayed in rooms which were in some telling respects rather grander than their own abodes, in a similar way to the manner in which the Victorians were often photographed against cloth backdrops of similarly fake ostentation in order to distract from their actual social position. Equally, as Retford points out, the value that is placed on originality in our society was not necessarily such a desirable quality to our eighteenth-century ancestors, for whom indications of conforming to the standards of good taste which indicated membership of a respected social stratum were more important. Consequently, being portrayed with objects that they did not actually own was not a form of deceit, but more a case of aspirational identification via material display.
The conversation piece as an indicator of social status, aspirational or otherwise, also spoke of familial bonding. Many of these paintings feature not only blood relatives surrounding some presiding paterfamilias but also other members of the family in an extended sense. Indeed, the term ‘family’ could, in this period, designate a range of relationships. It could refer to everyone who lived under the same roof, whether head of the household, wife, children, lodgers, apprentices or servants; kinsfolk of various types (including by marriage) who lived at a distance; or those ancestors who featured in a time-honoured lineage. These shifting meanings of ‘family’ had a bearing on which individuals were included in any particular group portrait and how their relationships to each other were indicated. Who, in effect, was considered ‘effective kindred’ in terms of the social and functional advantages that they brought with them? Petitions for favour, the reinforcement of mutual obligations, and strategic manoeuvring could all inform the subtext of many a conversation piece.
With regard to the memorialisation of non-familial relationships through group portraits, Retford’s research has shown that these exclusively focused on male bonding or, as she puts it, “those eighteenth-century conversation pieces that commemorated friendship…were heavily gendered and did not provide potential narratives for the depiction of affective female lives.” A popular means of displaying this kind of homosocial bonding was the sporting portrait. A prime example is Philip Reinagle’s Members of the Carrow Abbey Hunt from 1780, which portrays a coterie of hale and hearty companions variously sat at, stood around, or perched upon a table in a hunting lodge, where they have just taken breakfast and are preparing for the day’s activities. With frisky hounds at their feet and an array of weaponry hanging on the walls behind them, the worthy Norwich burghers exude sturdy sociability. All of these local brewers, manufacturers and politicians would have further cemented their friendship by passing the finished portrait around the group for each member to own until they had all eventually died, at which point it would descend through a family line. An altogether more culturally elevated example of this type of group portrait can be seen in Gawen Hamilton’s A Conversation of Virtuosis…at the Kings Arms from 1735, in which an atmosphere of sophisticated gentility prevails as the virtuosi adopt dignified poses whilst examining an assortment of interesting and tasteful artefacts. A variation on this theme of group displays of culturally informed sensibility would also inform many of the conversation pieces produced to record relationships between those wealthy young men who undertook the Grand Tour, pictures often set in the auspicious surroundings of some of Europe’s grander tourist attractions, which again spoke of sociability as a means of creating long-lasting bonds of mutually beneficial amity.
In amongst the conversation piece’s display of wealth, ambition, theatricality and friendship, there occasionally lurked another important facet of human character: namely humour. An innate predisposition to revel in joviality was, for William Congreve, a particularly English trait. The dramatist commented that “I look upon humour to be almost of English growth,” attributable to “the great Freedom, Privilege and Liberty which the Common People of England enjoy.” When it came to the conversation piece, this native vein of mirth took several forms. Misbehaving dogs and children were two favourite motifs, especially when the antics of both were combined, as exemplified by Hogarth’s The Cholmondeley Family in which the crouching family pet tries to stay away from the impish children running riot in the library, whilst their elders attempt to maintain their urbane poses. As Retford informs us, the sense of incongruity which supplies the comedy in this scene was one of the most popular concepts of humour in the eighteenth century. Given the bitingly ribald flavour of Hogarth’s humour in some of his more scabrous satires, it is hardly surprising that his conversation piece joke repertoire ran to more than just children and animals. In The Hervey Conversation Piece of 1738-40, John, Baron Hervey, a close associate of George II, is surrounded by a group of acquaintances who examine an architectural drawing near the gates of a large estate. Most notable amongst them is a clergyman in a black cassock who raises a telescope to view a distant feature whilst perched precariously on a chair. A seated member of the company is using his cane to surreptitiously push the chair over onto its back legs, so that the clergyman’s fall is imminent. In this case, we see how the anti-clerical humour characteristic of the period overlapped with Baron Hervey’s particular grudge against the real life individual pictured. Light relief, pleasingly juxtaposed informality and the occasional barbed visual aside are as much a part of the conversation piece tradition as its more decorous components.
Retford’s book succeeds particularly well in showing the many strands of cultural behaviour which constituted the conversation piece as a notably amorphous sub-genre. Whilst these works were never held in particularly high regard, even in their heyday (when compared, for example, to more noble artistic categories such as history painting), this book asks some important questions about these sorts of group portraits and their reappraisal. In the end the author generally achieves her aim of drawing attention to the modernity, innovativeness and complexity of these works, along the way providing some fascinating glimpses into their status as nuanced social documents. Consequently, much light is shed on a type of portraiture which has usually been overshadowed by more illustrious examples of eighteenth-century art.--Mark Jones