«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 ...»
The portrait gently commemorates the movement of Conduitt’s family into the courtly elite. The picture shows a group, including the young Duke of Cumberland and Princesses Louisa and Mary, watching Conduitt’s sole heir, a daughter who was to marry into a peerage family. She performs with two children from a noble family. The entitlement of the family to move in exalted circles is asserted by the presence of the pseudo-Roman bust of Isaac Newton that dominates the mantel before which invited guests gather. On the chimney breast are also seen the portraits of the absent hosts, John Conduitt and his wife, the natural philosopher’s niece. The visual proximity of their images to Newton’s bust, set above the mantel in conjunction with a cast of a relief panel that appeared on the philosopher’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, is essential to the monumental inflections of the painting.49 This relief, indeed, may well have been the prompt for the charming comedy of the painting. It featured playful boys bearing emblems of Newton’s achievement, who, like the children below, render charming a serious point of family honour and public circumstance.
Indeed, Conduitt (who died in 1737, shortly after this painting was completed) had willed that he should be buried close to Newton’s monument, for which he had paid.50 John Conduitt’s family erected a monument to him on the west wall of the Abbey, which was designed to be received as a pair with that of the philosopher. The presence of classicizing commemorative statuary establishes a sense of an antique hearth, sacred to the pieties of ancestral inheritance. Fittingly, it was the daughter of the painted couple, their sole heir, who was depicted as the main performer on the stage in front of the hearth. Yet, she does not here take the role of a starched representative of her dynasty. Rather, she recites her lines with a typically child-like incompetence that requires the anxious prompting of her tutor. The audience of royal and noble children immediately before the hearth do not misbehave, they communicate the charming artlessness of their years. They exist, literally, in the shadow of the most serious mind of the modern age, yet they are neither conspicuously beholden, nor is this their elder’s indulgent expectation.
There had been a strong post-Reformation tradition of conceiving this locus of the home in the manner of a tomb.51 Chimney breasts, like the canopies of funeral monuments, were frequently encrusted with complex armorial diagrams of dynasties (fig. 8). This practice did not die out in the eighteenth century, when a few great houses, such as Burton Constable and Boughton House, were fitted with conspicuous heraldic mantel adornments.52 In the Georgian era, the chimney breast could function as a platform for family busts; the faces of relatives and ancestors replacing earlier heraldic abstractions in the communication of a family’s lineage.
However, the idea of depicting family groups in conversation before the hearth, sometimes placed in contrast to the static iconic presence of dead relations or patrons, offered a conceptualization of the family that was far more immediate than that conveyed by sculptural adornment. Unlike the busts which were customary upon funeral monuments, conversation portraits had no established role in the iconography of death; rather the family relationships recorded through conversational art were emphatically lively. A dynasty was literally brought to life at the same time as it was recorded for posterity, in a manner that had considerably greater emotive resonance than would an
family tree. The family laid out for the viewer before the mantel by Georgian portraitists might be an extended cousinhood, as in paintings such as Hogarth’s Assembly at Wanstead House (fig. 2) and Wollaston Family. Generally, however, they were a small and affectionate group, as in Hayman’s Tyers Family (fig. 3) or, later, in Zoffany’s portraits of the Dutton Family (fig. 9) and Willoughby de Brooke Family. Through such imagery, the pompous, dynastic post-Reformation armorial hearth was translated into a form in which the family was reconceived as an institution of affectionate “conversation”.53 Having first been realized in the 1730s, the understanding that a conversation piece constituted an option to display a more intimate vision of the family than other types of portrait available to patrons was maintained into the late eighteenth century. One important hearth conversation piece, Philip Reinagle’s Mrs Congreve and Family (ca. 1785), seems to make similar points to Hogarth’s Conquest of Mexico concerning the function of the hearth conversation as an alternative to more formal and public modes of revealing a family through portraiture. A hearth scenario has here been chosen as the appropriate format in which to represent the domestic relationships of a patron’s wife to her youngest children. They sit in front of Reinagle’s recently painted (ca. 1782) conversation portrait of the absent father of the family, General Congreve, and his eldest son, performing manoeuvres at Woolwich Military Academy.
This imagery seems to define the outdoor conversation as, in this case, a more fitting format for encountering the family’s men of action.54 A contrast between the hearth as a forum for private child’s play, and the outdoors as a public realm of adult activity, is made through the clever deployment of ballistic imagery. The youngest male child is playing with a small model of a siege cannon on a hearth table of the kind conventionally seen in this type of image. In the painting behind, the toddler’s elder brother, who has reached a sufficient maturity to begin his training, takes part in real military exercises. He stands with his father before a rugged cliff, up which engineers haul a heavy cannon. This depicted martial conversation piece is itself surrounded by a range of other family portraits, which introduce the dynasty in different guises. Above the mantel, in the traditional position of “sacred” honour, is encountered the most famous ancestor of the family, and ultimate paterfamilias, the playwright, William Congreve. Reinagle here created, as had Hogarth in The Conquest of Mexico, a portrait about portraiture; revealing pictorially the capability of the most economically successful representatives of the professional classes to celebrate their dynastic identity in a succession of contrasting portrait images.
The hearth conversation piece, then, demands to be understood in its original domestic environment: as a conventional option in the panoply of equally conventional types of portrait. It advanced an invitation to view the family that was likely to be manifestly more privileged, and revealing of intimacies, than other portraits accumulated by a household. Yet it is debatable whether the basic mode of invitation which such paintings, right through the century, seem to represent was ever radically revised from that operative in the 1730s. This essay is distinct from other approaches to conversation piece portraiture in the degree of importance that it attaches to its conventional character. From this stance, it is to be expected that conformity with traditional kinds of address is given priority over the narratives of transformative change in familial culture that have tended to be emphasized by previous historians of the genre. This essay shifts the scholarly agenda away from charting how portraiture developed under a gradually intensifying pressure to communicate some model of the “affective nuclear” family; rather, what appears to be at stake is the development of a new range of ways of employing art to celebrate domestic relationships. The hearth conversation piece was redolent of the most relaxed dimension of sociability: “family room” hospitality. The formation of this kind of hospitality did not necessarily reflect a cultural movement away from formal dynastic “parade”. On the contrary: families can be considered to have developed this kind of informal sociability, as John Cornforth implies, to escape some of the rigours of “state” hospitality in which more formal dynastic theatre was in demand.55 In this regard, the rise of the “conversation” portrait might be interpreted as an indication of an intensification in the obligations of dynasties to “parade”, rather than as an indication of the development of “polite society” towards relaxed modes of congress.
An important element of the hearth conversation piece is its literalism. The proposition that these paintings, though designed to operate within a culture where familial bonds could be considered as having a “sacred” or classically rooted character, also provided for those viewers who elected not to relate to such abstract concepts, is strongly supported by the evidence that they were intended to replicate actual and ordinary experience. More specifically, many paintings have details suggestive of an intention to represent the sensation of meeting the family as arranged before the hearth in expectation of receiving guests.56 Occasionally, the imagery makes clear that those depicted await company, as in Arthur Devis’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Hill (ca. 1750); the couple, the only persons in the room, stand before a tea table set with seven cups.57 A vital factor in comprehending these paintings is that the viewer of the image was encouraged to feel as though he or she were meeting the family in accordance with established conventions of proffering hospitality. These dictated that a familiar guest, having been received through the main portal by a servant, would be conducted directly to a reception room, where the family, or host, would be prepared to grant welcome.58 By convention, the hearth, as the visual focal point in its scheme of decoration, was construed as the best place to play host. Such was the literalism of the convention that there is a remarkable preponderance, across the subgenre, of chimney breasts that have been stripped of their grates for the summer season, temporarily boarded over or adorned with a vase of flowers.59 Where windows also appear in the image, the prospect of green leaves generally emphasizes further the situation of the scene in the period of the year when families tended to return to their estates to avoid the heat of the town and enjoy the countryside. High summer, also the typical time of year celebrated in outdoor conversation pieces, was the main period in which guests were received at family seats.
The typical viewpoint of a hearth conversation piece replicates the experience of entering a reception room. In the majority of cases, the perspective is that of a central viewpoint with the chimneypiece seen directly from the front; the family being symmetrically disposed around the chimney breast to greet the viewer. A second convention placed the family before a hearth that was seen, in foreshortened perspective, on an end wall. In both traditions, the convention conformed with the advice of William Chambers in his Treatise of 1759, that the chimneypiece should be sited at some remove from the main entrance to a room to allow a host to
greet his or her guest from before the hearth:
The chimney should always be situated so as to be easily seen by those who enter the room, that they may not have the persons already in the room, who are generally seated near the fire, to look for.60 Taking Chambers’s standards of design as a guide to proper conduct, it seems that painters of conversation portraits recreated the correct ritual of welcome. In this respect, such paintings are a highly literal expression of politeness. The literalism of this convention is occasionally made plain by the presence of an empty chair awaiting the guest and viewer. Arthur Devis’s portrait of John Smith Barry, his wife, Dorothy, and two children (Marbury Hall Cheshire, ca. 1735) is typical. The focus of the viewer is on the male head of the family, standing before the chimneypiece. He looks directly at the viewer and leans against an empty chair, as if to offer a seat.
It is significant that the majority of these hearth conversations featured a small portable table that was placed before the hearth.61 This was often set with tea, a hand of cards, or an open document, in such a manner as to create the impression that the viewer is invited to join the company. On account of its portability, a hearth table of this kind articulated the duty of the host to make his or her guest aware that the room had been purposefully prepared for their reception. These modest, though elegant, tables reminded the viewer of the character of the conversation piece itself: that of a permanent testimony to a temporary gesture of welcome. The table and the chimneypiece had contrasting functions in these dramas of hearth hospitality; the portability of the former contrasting with the fixed presence of the latter. As a temporary forum for shared activities, the table was regarded as a place of disclosure and welcome. The chimneypiece and hearth, a solid vertical presence beyond this temporary horizontal surface, was the host family’s permanent inner-sanctum.