LONDON.- A fascinating insight into high-society style and manners, from the time of Charles I to the reign of Queen Victoria, is presented in the exhibition The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life. Typically a Conversation Piece shows a family group or a gathering of friends participating in informal activities perhaps at a tea-party, on a fishing trip or at a dining club. While a portrait primarily records the sitters appearance, the Conversation Piece depicts their way of life.
The exhibition traces the roots of the Conversation Piece back to the Netherlands in the 17th century and to the work of artists such as Pieter de Hooch and Godfried Schalcken. This form of group portraiture reached the height of its popularity in Georgian England, and the exhibition includes outstanding paintings by the greatest exponents of the Conversation Piece, Johan Zoffany, William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough. To complement the selection of royal Conversation Pieces, the exhibition shows examples of the genre acquired by members of the royal family over the past four centuries.
For the merchants of the new Dutch Republic, the Conversation Piece was a way of celebrating their large families and prosperous lifestyle. They sought to imitate the manners and customs of the French aristocracy and commissioned artists to paint them on their country estates and in their extensive gardens, as seen in Ludolf de Jonghs A Formal Garden: Three Ladies surprised by a Gentleman and Family Group by Barent Graat. Charles I brought Netherlandish artists to England to promote the values of his family, and the good order and dignity of his court. Hendrick Pots Charles I, Henrietta Maria and Charles, Prince of Wales shows the king and queen presenting their son, the future Charles II, to the public, while in A View of Greenwich the royal couple stroll through the park with members of their court.
In the 18th century the art of England was still largely dominated by foreign talent. The French artist Marcellus Laroon injected the Conversation Piece with an element of satire. In A Dinner Party and A Musical Tea-Party he pokes fun at the extravagance and affectation of the contemporary elite.
The German-born French painter Philippe Mercier shows Frederick, Prince of Wales and his sisters playing music together in an image of domestic harmony and refinement. In a work attributed to Joseph Nickolls, the prince appears in a panoramic crowd scene in The Mall, then the most fashionable resort in 18th-century London. Here the Conversation Piece serves to demonstrate the princes popularity and his ability to mingle with people from all walks of life.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a group of works by Johan Zoffany, perhaps the greatest practitioner of the Conversation Piece. A German-born painter who settled in England, Zoffany was a favourite of George III and painted numerous works for the royal family. The king and his consort, Queen Charlotte, commissioned the artist to celebrate the virtues of normal family life. In Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons, Zoffany shows the lavishly attired queen as an attentive mother with her children and the family dog gathered around her. The exhibition includes Zoffanys greatest painting, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, in which a distinguished gathering of aristocrats, artists and Grand Tourists are set against a dazzling assemblage of masterpieces.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert used art to present to the public an image of the ideal family. In Sir Edwin Landseers Windsor Castle in Modern Times the queen is shown as the contented wife, with her eldest child and family pets, giving her young husband a posy of flowers on his return from the hunt. In another work by Landseer, she is seen with her sketchbook enjoying the beauty of the highlands with her children. She acts and dresses as a middle-class mother, so much so, that a passing ghillie looks amazed when he realises that he has met the queen.