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«Author Matthew Craske Date 04.04.2016 Review status Peer Reviewed Licence CC BY-NC Article DOI 10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue- 02/mcraske Cite as ...»

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Conversations and Chimneypieces: the

imagery of the hearth in eighteenth-century

English family portraiture

By Matthew Craske

Author Matthew Craske

Date 04.04.


Review status Peer Reviewed

Licence CC BY-NC

Article DOI 10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-


Cite as Matthew Craske, "Conversations and

Chimneypieces: the imagery of the hearth

in eighteenth-century English family

portraiture", British Art Studies, Issue 2, http://dx.doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058- 5462/issue-02/mcraske British Art Studies PDFs British Art Studies is a digital publication and intended to be experienced online and referenced digitally. PDFs are provided for ease of reading offline. PDFs are preformatted and the content may not correspond exactly with that of the current article, which may have been updated.

Please do not reference the PDF, use the DOIs (digital object identifiers) provided with the online article.

British Art Studies can be identified by its International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), 2058-5462 Additionally, every issue, article, chapter, paragraph and figure published in the journal has been assigned a Digital Object Identifier (DOI). This unique alphanumeric string identifies content and provides a persistent link to its location on the internet. A DOI is guaranteed never to change, so you can use it to link permanently to electronic documents in academic citations with confidence. Every DOI published by British Art Studies will begin with the prefix http://dx.doi.org/10.17658.

I The study of the “conversation piece” portrait, in which a family group poses in an elegant interior or garden, is now central to the history of English Georgian art. Such is the obvious relevance of these images to the history of “the family” that they are often used as material evidence in the analysis of domestic order.1 The recent tendency to define the eighteenth century as a period of “polite sociability” has encouraged scholars to focus on determining the meaning of the “conversation” referred to in these works.2 Accordingly, the typical conversational activities represented, from taking tea to playing cards, have attracted the notice of those concerned with tracing the essential rituals of genteel existence. David Solkin, for instance, has interpreted this kind of painting as a mode of exemplifying and fostering ideals of “politeness” as fashioned in the early and mid-Georgian “public sphere”.3 Meanwhile, social historians have focused on the particularities of these paintings: the identification of sitters, the analysis of their familial grouping, and relationship to specific things.

This kind of focus has, to some degree, diverted attention from the conventional nature of the conversation piece. Types of situation have yet to be categorized, let alone to attract sustained analysis. Looking at such pictures from this perspective allows us to recognize the continuities of setting that they exhibit. Thus, where an indoor scenario was required, a family or couple were typically grouped around an architectural component such as a Serlian window or chimneypiece.4 In particular, hearth conversation portraits, in which a group gather around a chimneypiece, comprise around a third of surviving interior “small figure” conversation pieces; this being the most popular scenario from the 1730s to 1760s. Sitters who demanded garden settings appear to have been no less conventional in their expectations. In gardens, families were posed around certain conspicuously artificial props, such as a vase or statue on a lawn, a terrace with a fine balustrade, a garden house or temple.5 Clients who insisted upon being seen in an overtly natural setting were typically placed by the painter beyond the scope of architecture, interior or exterior. The most common convention in these circumstances was to place a tree, usually an oak, at the centre, as a meeting place. This device was employed in such well-known conversation portraits as Johann Zoffany’s two paintings of children of Lord Bute (1763–65) or Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (1748).

In composing settings, some painters, most overtly Arthur Devis, routinely employed a limited range of stock props (fig. 1). Devis’s standard scenarios were envisaged as the context for certain proscribed polite postures; his sitters pose in accordance with the recommendations of conduct manuals, in particular François Nivelon’s Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour (1737).6 The most prestigious metropolitan purveyors of conversation portraits, led first by William Hogarth and afterwards by Johann Zoffany, distinguished themselves through providing works that more thoughtfully catered to the individual tastes, characteristics, and foibles of their employers.7 However, these artists were no less dependent upon conventional staging; indeed, their superiority to routine practitioners was expressed in their witty subversion, or charming embellishment, of the stock modes of scene-setting employed by competitors.8 Thus, whether defining convention or analysing its variants, it is necessary for the art historian to establish the meaning of compositional constructs, which can be expressed linguistically through phrases such as “grouped beneath a fine tree” or “gathered around the chimney breast”.

In this article, which offers itself as a test-case for such an approach, I shall focus on that most popular of settings within such pictures: the hearth. The types of chimney breasts these paintings customarily depict are modest. They are indicative of a pictorial mode in which it was conventional to eschew such display of wealth as might be censured as luxurious. Marble, as a character in a play by John Aikin stated, “is the luxury of architecture” and the material of the ceremonious “chimneypiece and hearth”.9 So expensive were premier marble chimneypieces that one architects’ primer by John Carter explicitly advised practitioners that patrons who were not carefully forewarned

might baulk at, or reject, the bill:

Let the person who proposes a chimney of this kind, or who receives a proposal from his proprietor, first represent to him the expense. This is a very needful article at first setting out, for if it be omitted, he must expect, either that the owner will be startled at the charge, or that the work will disgrace him.10 However, even though heavily carved Italian marble chimneypieces became an almost mandatory indication of a high status mid-Georgian dwelling, such works rarely featured in conversation portraits. I have only encountered one painted representation of the second highest order of chimneypiece, the “continued” design where the entire chimney breast was marble, centring upon a substantial high-relief panel above the mantle.11 There are no paintings that pose families before the most expensive type of all, that with life-size caryatids, or “Persians”, supporting the mantel.

Instead, the painters of hearth scenes preferred to set the scene in “family rooms”, in which mundane and intimate sociability was expected.

In so doing, they left unrepresented what John Cornforth has defined as the chambers of “state” or “parade” that were reserved for ceremonious hospitality.12 In this respect, Hogarth’s famous conversation piece, Assembly at Wanstead House (fig. 2), is extremely atypical in that it seems to feature an accurate representation of a large, convivial but distinctly stately, dynastic gathering before an impressive marble hearth in one of most magnificent reception rooms of a retirement palace which was famous, even notorious, for its grandeur.13 Hearth “conversations”, in their focus on somewhat more modest interiors, were, in this regard, well suited to the social circumstances of provincial gentry families; an actuality that probably explains the great number of hearth portraits made by Arthur Devis, who catered specifically to the provincial gentry of the Midlands and North of England. Such clients, who aspired to affluent respectability rather than magnificence, generally did not own “state” chambers. As a consequence, their highest social expectation was to conduct a display of decency in a room modestly fitted out to receive company. The interiors of the conversation pieces they commissioned tended, as Lorna Weatherill has observed, to represent the height of material aspirations for gentry families.14 By contrast, dynasties which moved in the grandest metropolitan social circles, of the kind which commissioned hearth conversations from Hogarth and Zoffany, seem to have employed this conspicuously intimate form of portrait to celebrate a calculatedly understated form of hospitality. For the clients of these painters, as opposed to those of Devis, a conversation piece was regarded as a suitable format for “in-house” or “in-joke” forms of pictorial narrative. These pictures were primarily intended for the intimate observer. It was not simply that metropolitan sophisticates could afford to engage painters capable of wit or playfulness, such as Hogarth, Francis Hayman, and Zoffany. Rather, I would suggest, this class of person was more likely to adopt an air of informality, in which they revealed foibles suitable for exposure to privileged guests, and which was distinct from their capacity to conduct hospitality of a more formal and “stately” character. Art historians have debated whether the small figure conversation piece is essentially bourgeois or aristocratic in character.15 This essay argues, instead, that it became suitable for a wide range of social “conversations”, above the level of “the middling sort”.16 Yet, although conventions of scene-setting applied across classes, it seems that the tenor of social introductions varied considerably according to the cultural sophistication of the hosts, just as in the case of an actual invitation to tea or cards.


As Isaac Ware asserted in A Complete Body of Architecture (1756), the hearth was typically the centre of attention in a well-appointed room;

architects were advised to begin with the chimneypiece and plan a room to suit its proportions. Ware compared the significance of a chimneypiece within interior architecture to that of a portico in exterior design.

Both components provided the essential point of determination from which to measure the proportion and character of all other, secondary, elements of “decorative architecture”:

The rule being established with respect to outside decorations, must therefore hold, according to what we have shown, with regard to those within. It follows therefore, that the chimneypiece being the first thing designed, and the fixed point from which an architect is to direct his work in the rest, all is to rise from it in a like proportion.17 Ware advocated a fresh response to decorative architecture and chimneypiece design. Formerly, in the 1720s and 1730s, such components had been the subject of a pattern-book approach to interior decoration;

the central indication of the importance of chimneypieces to English architecture being the sheer number of variants that were suggested to the solution of adorning the hearth.18 From the mid-1750s onwards, however, attention shifted to a literary codification of decorative architecture. “Rules” of decorum were prescribed. This determined that a chimneypiece should be appropriate, whether in architectonic character or carved subject matter, to the kind of room in which it was placed.

Following Ware, William Chambers, in his Treatise on Civil Architecture (1759), promoted the understanding that the architect who adorned the chimney breast was responsible for setting a moral and aesthetic tone for the household.19 Both architects deplored the nude figures that were essential to the most ostentatious chimneypieces, which included “caryatid” and “Persian” supporting figures. These figurative elements

were supposed to subvert domestic morals. Chambers advised that:

All nudities, and indecent representations must be avoided in chimneypieces and, indeed, in every other ornament of an apartment to which children, ladies and other modest and grave persons, have constant recourse.20 For Ware, who thought his professional responsibility was to protect “delicate” sensibilities, male nudity was the greatest problem.21 He saw the virtue of female spectators as compromised by the life-size muscular

males who were deployed as fictive props to premier mantelpieces:

Modern sculptors are fond of nudities; but in a chimneypiece it would be abominable; they would shock the delicacy of our sex and could not be seen by the modesty of the other... Let no statuary here object, that the great excellence of his art is withheld, for that it would consist of muscular figures. We banish anatomy from the parlour of the polite gentleman: that is all.22 By the mid-eighteenth century, the chimney breast had become an acknowledged locus for the definition of domestic morals for the full range of the propertied classes. By 1763, the national tendency to regard the chimney breast as the repository of domestic virtues was so familiar as to be theatrically lampooned by Isaac Bickerstaffe in his comic opera, Love in the Village. A lady’s sewing mania is here satirized in order to subvert the notion of “homespun” wisdom. She boasts to have stitched “the creed and the ten commandments in the hair of our family” and to have had the image “framed and glazed and hung over the chimneypiece in the parlour”.23 Furthermore, the hearth became a sacrosanct locus of a particularly English domesticity. From John Aheron’s General Treatise on Architecture (1754) onwards, architectural treatises in the English language recognized the adornment of the chimney breast as a distinctive national concern.24 George Richardson, who published a whole book on chimneypiece design in 1781, justified his project by claiming that he catered to an established

and defining artistic preoccupation of the English:

Neither the French nor Italians have been famous in compositions for chimneys, their productions of this sort in common are whimsical fancies, at present this country surpasses all other nations with respect to magnificent chimneypiece, not only in point of expense, but likewise in taste and goodness of workmanship.25 Richardson took his nationalistic cue from Chambers’s Treatise on Civil Architecture, which argued that the chimneypiece was, owing to the damp

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