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A reflection on conversation pieces

by Angus Trumble, 29 May 2017

A Family Being Served with Tea, ca. 1745 by an unknown artist
A Family Being Served with Tea, ca. 1745 by an unknown artist

I am very much looking forward to our next major exhibition, Dempsey’s People: A Folio of British Street Portraits, 1824–1844 (Thursday 29 June to Sunday 22 October 2017). Dempsey’s People rests in part on the idea that there was in Regency Britain a vast mass of portrait production that has mostly been overshadowed by “the greats”: Wright of Derby, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hoppner, Lawrence. Until recently, these, together with their most ambitious and successful confrères in the Royal Academy of Arts, have hogged the historical limelight, while a legion, a whole army of lesser artists, often hugely prolific, laboured away relatively unnoticed, under-appreciated, and have passed into obscurity, their work disbursed into the hopper of provincial auctions, junk shops, attics and land fill. In due course, some of that work and certain of those artists made the long and arduous voyage to colonial New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.

It might be argued, based exclusively on careful, detached assessments of quality (which, without irony, we used to call connoisseurship)—that is, draughtsmanship, technique, handling, colourism, composition, proportion, manner, élan, what you will—that such obscurity is no more than the inevitable fate of the plodder, the jobber, or the outright failure. However, that is to ignore the awesome significance of what was by any measure a rapidly expanding market for portraits throughout the “long eighteenth century,” from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The Georgian settlement may often be seen as a long period of social and political stability. But through the prism of the incipient Industrial Revolution, it may instead be seen as a veritable cataract of change, and particularly with respect to the market for portraits. This actually paved the way for patterns of mass circulation that, in turn, proved to be such fertile ground in which the invention of photography was firmly planted in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. So if Sir Thomas Lawrence stands for the mighty few, John Dempsey stands for the shiftless many. More importantly, if Reynolds, Gainsborough and Lawrence wore mantles that descended from Kneller and Lely, John Dempsey also stood in a comparatively long tradition, that of demotic, often peripatetic, certainly prolific and mostly provincial studio practice.

There is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, an English painting, datable on the basis of costume to about 1745, that has for many years exercised my imagination. We do not know who painted it. Yet it now strikes me, in many ways, as having been painted by the virtual ancestor, the professional progenitor of John Dempsey and his kind. As a small-scale, full-length family group dressed in ordinary, contemporary costume—father, mother, and two daughters, with a liveried servant—and set in a relatively compact, sparsely furnished but, at the same time, elegant Georgian interior, this painting conforms to that particular type that is known as a “conversation piece.”

The conversation piece was a unique eighteenth-century English invention. To some degree it was simply a representation of people engaging in conversation, but the term also allows for the possibility that such pictures could also prompt, inspire and be the subject of conversation. Either way, the conversation piece reflected the rapid growth in demand for portraits that were relatively informal, determinedly domestic in subject and scale, in other words much smaller than the previous century’s Restoration full- and three quarter-lengths, and above all suitable for intimate rooms in Georgian houses: Queen Anne boxes, rectories, terraces and lesser manors that sprung up in huge numbers throughout Britain during the eighteenth century. The conversation piece went hand in hand with rise of the middling gentry, and the mercantile middle class.

This specimen, however, creaks and wobbles at the lower end of the spectrum. The spatial arrangements are as unerringly wonky as they are ambitious. Consider the smorgasbord of problems this artist has set for himself. He was certainly a man, as we shall see. The architecture alone—the splendid alcove with painted ceiling decoration and arched windows; the niche, pediment, columns and pilaster—poses challenges that are worthy of the most ambitious painter, but are here, despite a tremendous struggle, if not wholly botched certainly not met with anything like the precision of an established master. Notice the artist’s mad effort to align that fashionable fortepiano against the recessional lines dictated by the paved floor, and to tackle the keyboard, the lid, and that ludicrous gilded nude caryatid, winged but armless, with ample breasts and flamboyant tresses, who perches most unsatisfactorily on a skinny Cabriole leg.

There are, as well, problems of scale. Note the tiny feet, the dogs, the over-large heads, indeed the over-large bodies in relation to the room. There is difficulty in establishing any relationship between the figures. On the other hand, those heads are quite obviously portraits, even that of the servant, and are, on the whole, plausible likenesses—rather plain. There is an almost embarrassing forthrightness with which the artist draws attention to the, surely, unfortunate thickness of the elder daughter’s neck, and the impressiveness of her embonpoint compared with that of her younger sister. And as regards costume, however, the textures, stuffs, the deliciously shimmering fabrics, the lace, the brocade of the settee, the jewellery and all the other things—above all the exquisite handling of the delicate china service, the kettle and the brazier—this artist was on much, much firmer ground.

Are we dealing, perhaps, with more than one hand? Possibly, but upon long reflection over many years, I don’t think so. There is an “inherent-ness” to this work, the way it manages to hang together (just)—or, put differently, the way that it manages to conform to so consistent (and, to me, endearing) a pattern of awkwardness in the deep substructure—that has persuaded me that it was painted by one man. And he was proud of it too. Why? Because if you look very closely you can see this artist’s own self-portrait, seated at an easel beside a large sash window, as a tiny reflection in the body of the silver kettle that the servant carries in his right hand. The artist shows himself in a grey coat and buff knee breeches, certainly present in this particular room, and not in his studio—if he had one. He may have had precious little time in which to accomplish anything like those plausible likenesses.

He was possibly harried by the little dogs; inadequately supplied with comestibles in the servants’ hall, where he was no doubt made frostily aware of his, at best, ambiguous social standing. He may also have been hampered further by the changing light. Look at the half-heartedness with which he tackled the fall of light through the door on the left and over the floor in the foreground. Look at how he so deliberately refrained from attempting anything more than the most cursory, corresponding shadows that you would expect to be cast by the figures and the furniture. Too difficult. Not enough time. No, this artist was more or less floundering. I think he was most probably a painter of miniatures, perhaps reluctantly set to work on a scale that, to him, was the equivalent of a porcelain painter being obliged to tackle a ceiling fresco.

By contrast, look at the brilliance with which he handles the distorting effects of the reflection in the kettle, itself so handsome and well polished. This was his métier; this was what he did for a living. There is another hint towards this artist’s own presence in the room. There are five china tea cups, but only four members of the family. In some al fresco conversation pieces a lopped tree trunk can often stand for an absent child (of beloved memory), but I am not aware of any instance of an extra tea cup having been used as any sort of comparable memorialisation—for this, I suspect, would run the risk of triviality. The fifth cup cannot possibly have been for the servant, and it is even questionable whether the Reverend gentleman would have offered tea to an artist in the presence of his two unmarried daughters. It seems far more likely, therefore, that, by ingenious sleight of hand, the artist himself deftly added the fifth cup upon his own authority, making of it (for anyone who cared to notice) a wry exercise of good-natured wit.

From the other point of view, that of the patron, it is not hard to imagine a prosperous clergyman (in contented possession of a number of excellent livings, or else supported by an income of several thousands a year that had come with his wife) taking advantage of the brief presence in his household of an artist who might as well be set to work on a conversation picture, the likelihood of any better (or equally affordable) artist passing through that particular district of Devon or Gloucestershire or Rutland or Shropshire being comparatively low.

We do not know the identity of this family. If, as I suspect, the Reverend gentleman presided over a rural parish (or several), we can safely say that his footprint was exceedingly light. He may have taken the trouble to preach every few years, and/or, at roughly the same intervals, to preside over what was at that time known as “the Lord’s Supper”—in other words only when successive curates either went missing, died, or were incapacitated by shingles or the flux. In between times he probably published nothing; filled no other public office; served on no jury; may have avoided any obligation arising from a justiceship of the peace or any minor magistracy that might otherwise have required the attention of the local squire and/or parson. No doubt he scrupulously refrained from becoming directly involved in the affairs of his rapidly multiplying tribe of daughters, and otherwise lived quietly as a normal English country clergyman of means—from time to time dispensing appropriately modest sums in charity to old soldiers, destitute widows, and the poorest of his tenants. Note the gold sovereign in his left hand that he passes to his elder daughter. Was she perhaps lately engaged to be married? His achievements were surely modest; indeed his impact upon his neighbourhood, his county and his diocese were probably negligible. Yet it may also be true that, like so many gentlemen of his class, he did no discernible damage, acquired no enemies, raised no eyebrows, shook no foundations, left his peaceful world essentially as he found it, and passed out of the sight of men without reproach—and if that is true of this Reverend gentleman and his family, it is equally true of the jobbing artist we see so skilfully rendered in the gleaming belly of that silver kettle. Who was he? We shall almost certainly never know.

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