Dr Lawrence Klein (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)
Dr Kate Retford (History of Art, Birkbeck)
Dr Lawrence Klein
The conversation piece and polite culture: images, things and the makers of things
The genre of the conversation piece in eighteenth-century Britain brings to mind a complex but narrow world of ladies and gentlemen who sought to be represented as, in any number of ways, polite.
In this paper, I will use conversation pieces to suggest ways in which others in this society (people who were neither landed nor especially affluent) gained access to elements of polite culture and may have incorporated these elements into the ways they saw themselves.
I will do so in two principal ways.
First, I will talk about visual components of conversation pieces that circulated in accessible forms: painted conversation pieces made reference to specific individuals, their appurtenances and their habits (even if this representation was highly inaccurate); these same visual components could be detached from the painted image and redeployed generically in ways that allowed them to circulate to wider audiences.
Second, I will talk about the way producing polite goods for the people who appeared in conversation pieces left its mark on producers themselves: the mark of politeness.
Dr Kate Retford
The material world of the conversation piece: real things, fabricated things
One of the most compelling aspects of the conversation piece - a mode of small group portraiture which emerged in England in the 1720s and 1730s - has always been its emphasis on ‘stuff’. In these modestly proportioned canvases, sitters are usually pushed back into the picture plane, and full attention is paid to the details of the exteriors and - the subject of my paper – the interiors they inhabit. Stuccowork and carved overmantels are described in intricate detail; care is taken to capture the qualities of mahogany furniture and ceramic ornaments. As Sacheverell Sitwell once put it, this can seem an art of 'live objects, and inanimate persons’.
I want to focus on the questions raised when we have evidence that these spaces are, in fact, entirely fictitious, invented by the artist. Sometimes a conversation piece will represent the patron's actual home with notable accuracy; sometimes elements of that home have evidently been 'tweaked', but, on a considerable number of occasions, these painted rooms and the things they contain are pure artifice, even replicated in different portraits. My paper will ask: How were these interiors fabricated? How were they understood at the time, and how should we understand them now? Crucially, what can they tell us about the eighteenth-century world of material goods and matters of taste and politeness?
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