Wednesday, January 15, 2020

18C Personal Branding - Garden Conversation Pieces

George Stubbs (1724-1806) The Reverend Robert Carter Thelwall and His Family.  Stubbs was classified in his lifetime as a sporting painter, & as such was excluded from full membership of the rather snooty Royal Academy. He is best remembered for his paintings of horses & his conversation pieces which also contained some fine horses. In the 1740s, he lived in York & supplied some intimate illustrations for a treatise on midwifery. He settled in 1750s Lincolnshire, where he obsessively researched his major publication, "The Anatomy of the Horse." Early clients for his sporting & racing paintings included many of the noblemen who founded the Jockey Club, & many who wished they were members.

Since the mid-20C, personal branding or self-packaging has described a burgeoning process of attempting to establish a prescribed image or impression in the minds of others about an individual or a family.  With no instant & far-reaching social media or digitally-aided forms of disclosure in the 18C, that wasn't so easy.  But that kind of perception could be reinforced through Conversation Piece portraits.  Pioneered by William Hogarth (1697–1764) & Philip Mercier (1689-1760) in the early 18C, & continued by Arthur Devis (1712-1787), George Stubbs (1724-1806), Johan Zoffany (1733–1810) & others, the Conversation Piece was a new form of portraiture, depicting groups of traditional & aspiring gentry often in country house garden landscape settings.

A growing, affluent middle class was emerging, as Britain’s colonial empire prospered in the 17C & 18C, & its Industrial Revolution began.  The dissolution of England's monasteries in the 1530s had led to new land ownership, and consequently to a new class of non-aristocratic landowners. The power battles between this new class & the old finally led to the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.  Often socially spurned by established aristocracy, these newly-wealthy merchants, industrialists, & landowners assumed more casual manners enlivening both novels & group portraits. These new portrait Conversation Pieces & novels, like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice & Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, attempted to portray a more relaxed narrative of the prosperous middle class rather than the stiff allegories & heroic epic poems preferred by earlier aristocrats. Painters were commissioned to hold a mirror to this emerging English society more intimately portrayed in still sought-after planned environments participating in activities expected of "natural leaders" at their elegantly country house landscapes.  No longer were families simply rather stiffly painted outdoors, as they were in the 17C, when budding science was promoting man as the "interpreter of Nature."  Now the newly-privileged yearned to appear in complex multi-figured compositions, filled with more relaxed representations of traditional, socially-proper customs & activities. The vibrant (& at times wholly fabricated) settings in these works reflect the aspirations of the emerging material culture of Georgian Britain. 

Typically those depicted were members of an immediate family, but in-laws, friends & colleagues could be included; & sometimes, significant deceased relatives also appeared.  Occasionally, artists depicted organized gatherings of elite gentlemen discussing new science or scholarship. The settings of outdoor Conversation Pieces reflected the image the client wanted to present, especially the ideal landscape or more-natural garden, which he wanted to portray as the upper-class setting of his everyday activities.  And so, these Conversation Pieces are a great way to see what those in the 18C aspired to have in their planned, personal landscapes. The subjects of outdoor Conversation Pieces were depicted enjoying a variety of genteel pastimes, whether or not they actually could do the activities. Elites, aspiring or long-established, were painted sharing common activities such as hunting, fishing, outdoor meals & musical parties. Dogs & horses were also frequently included as proper gentry accessories.