The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life

5 January 2010

If you are in London or planning to make a trip there in the next month then I would definitely recommend a visit to the current exhibition on show at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. It’s running until 14th February so you still have a bit of time to get there.

The exhibition is ‘The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life’ and charts the development of the conversation piece as a genre of portraiture from the seventeenth century onwards, following the ever changing vagaries of fashion and, more crucially, the constantly evolving social conventions of a period that encompasses both the English Civil War and the French Revolution.

I’ve always been a massive fan of conversation pieces, appreciating them as a wealth of pictorial information about the everyday lives, aspirations and dramas of the middle and upper classes. I am always particularly enamoured with the tiny details: the stern face of a nanny as she holds a wailing infant, the flies settling on a bowl of fruit, the whisper of a flirtatious glance between the master of the house and his pretty ward.

This being an exhibition held in the Queen’s Gallery, the most interesting pieces are, of course those depicting members of royalty. Here we have a stiff and tiny Charles I, Henrietta Maria and their small son Charles, all looking equally pop eyed and sweetly doll like. There are also paintings of George III, his splendidly plain wife Charlotte and their numerous surprisingly good looking children. My favourite of these is the painting by Zoffany of Queen Charlotte at her dressing table, flanked by her two eldest sons in fancy dress.

Another favourite is Windsor Castle in Modern Times by Landseer, which depicts a young Queen Victoria with Prince Albert and their eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, surrounded by a rather repulsive pile of slaughtered birds. To modern sensibilities, it probably still seems overly stately and formal but the effect at the time must surely have been revolutionary as it depicted the young Queen as a ‘normal’, happy and blissfully content wife and mother, a fact underlined by the title which makes you immediately think of what horrors must have happened at Windsor Castle in Olden Times.

It is clear that both of these paintings, although undeniably charming are also in their own way, a form of propaganda, projecting an image of the royal family as ‘the perfect family’, carefree, loving, affectionate and, above all, normal. The Hanoverians were distinctly unpopular for much of their time in England and were often compared unfavourably with their Stuart predecessors with their exquisite tastes, turn for melodrama and luscious, lower class mistresses. Conversation piece pictures of George III and Queen Charlotte as normal parents, playing with their children and exchanging loving glances with their legally married spouse couldn’t have made more of a point about the contrast between the two than if they had written ‘THOSE STUARTS WERE A BIT FUN BUT AT LEAST I CAN GET MY OWN WIFE PREGNANT AND NOT SOMEONE ELSE’S’ in red ink all over the canvas.

In the same way, the Landseer image of Queen Victoria as a charmingly blushing, adoring little wife draws a line between the young monarch and her dissolute pack of uncles, their eccentric eurotrash wives and multitudes of illegitimate offspring, who were still causing problems well into her reign.

Anyway, I am very annoyed that I will probably miss the exhibition, especially as it s curated by one of my university tutors, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, but you should definitely go if you get the chance. I am going to content myself with a copy of the exhibition catalogue.