Matthew Dennison celebrates the conversation piece, the intimate Georgian form of portraiture which celebrated families without the usual swagger or posturing.

Waspish Horace Walpole reached a characteristic verdict on the paintings of his contemporary Francis Hayman, dismissing them as ‘easily distinguishable by the large noses and shambling legs of his figures’. It was not intended as an endorsement.

Beginning in the second quarter of the 18th century, Hayman became an early British proponent of the conversation piece. A form of group portraiture, usually modest in scale, depicting two or more friends or family members in apparently informal tableaux, the 18th-century conversation piece was esteemed for its decorative qualities as well as its ability to capture likenesses and evidence of the relationships between sitters.

It did not aspire to display defects of the big nose and gangly leg variety. Instead, it celebrated other sorts of display – of talents, possessions, lineage, fecundity, sociability, connoisseurship: all the things likely to appeal to Georgian aristocrats and their imitators.

Without the swagger and heroic posturing of grand portraiture, the conversation piece was often domestic, even intimate: sitters depicted at their ease in their houses and gardens, accompanied by children, dogs, horses and servants, or members of clubs and societies caught off duty in a moment of decorative confraternity.

Here are 10 conversation pieces which capture that spirit.


Charles Townley and his Friends in the Towneley Gallery, 33 Park Street, Westminster, 1781-83 (oil on canvas) by Zoffany, Johann (1733-1810); 127x99.1 cm; Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, Lancashire

Charles Townley and his Friends in the Townley Gallery, 33 Park Street, Westminster, 1781-83 (oil on canvas) by Zoffany, Johann (1733-1810).  Townley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, Lancashire. ©www.bridgemanimages.com


Painting by Howard Morgan Contemporary conversation piece showing the actress Pandora Clifford and family, permission required from Lady Clifford jane.clifford@btinternet.com

Howard Morgan’s  contemporary conversation piece showing the actress Pandora Clifford and family. Painting Photographed by Andrew Sydenham for Country Life. ©Country Life Picture Library


Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor, 1950 (oil on canvas) by Gunn, James (1893-1964); 151.1x100.3 cm; National Portrait Gallery, London, UK; (add.info.: King George VI (1895-1952). Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926). Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002). Princess Margaret (1930-2002).); Photo © Stefano Baldini

Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor, 1950 (oil on canvas) by Gunn, James (1893-1964); 151.1×100.3 cm. It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  © Stefano Baldini/www.bridgemanimages.com


The three youngest daughters of George III, 1785 (oil on canvas) by Copley, John Singleton (1738-1815); 265.5x186 cm; Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016. The picture was commissioned by George III (1738-1820) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen consort of the United Kingdom as wife of George III; their daughters Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1776-1857), Princess Sophia (1777-1848) and Princess Amelia (1783-1810)

The three youngest daughters of George III, 1785 (oil on canvas) by Copley, John Singleton (1738-1815); 265.5×186 cm; Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016. The picture was commissioned by George III (1738-1820) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen consort of the United Kingdom as wife of George III; their daughters Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1776-1857), Princess Sophia (1777-1848) and Princess Amelia (1783-1810). ©www.bridgemanimages.com


Conversation Piece (Portrait of Sir Andrew Fountaine with Other Men and Women), by William Hogarth, approx 1730-1735

Conversation Piece (Portrait of Sir Andrew Fountaine with Other Men and Women), by William Hogarth, approx 1730-1735 ©Philadelphia Musem of Art/John Howard McFadden Collection


The Gore Family with George, 3rd Earl Cowper, by Johann Zoffany, 1775. The Earl gazes at his bride, Hannah, surrounded by her family.

The Gore Family with George, 3rd Earl Cowper, by Johann Zoffany, 1775. The Earl gazes at his bride, Hannah, surrounded by her family. ©www.bridgemanimages.com


Undergraduates in a Worcester College Room, by Edward Halliday (1952). The painting explores the relationships between seven students.

Undergraduates in a Worcester College Room, by Edward Halliday (1952). The painting explores the relationships between seven students. Painting ©Estate of Edward Halliday; photograph of the painting ©Worcester College, used by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Worcester College


A Portait of the Vigor Family (1774) by Joseph Highmore

A Portait of the Vigor Family (1774) by Joseph Highmore. ©V&A


The Western Family by William Hogarth (© National Gallery of Ireland)

The Western Family by William Hogarth (© National Gallery of Ireland)


W. Chambers, The Townley Collection in the Dining Room at Park Street, Westminster, a watercolour

The Townley Collection in the Dining Room at Park Street, Westminster, a watercolour by W. Chambers © The British Museum / British Museum Images