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 six conversation pieces which capture that spirit.
Michael Armitage's The Flaying of Marsyas is the centrepiece of his exhibition in South London. Lilias Wigan examines it in
Madame Cézanne in Blue 1886-7. Part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of the painter’s work, 2017-18.
Credit: Madame Cézanne in Blue 1886-7. Part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of the painter’s work, 2017-18.