Friday, February 14, 2020

18C Personal Branding - Garden Conversation Pieces

Johann Zoffany (1733–1810) The Shakespeare Temple at Hampton House, with Mr. and Mrs. David Garrick (and dog) 1762  Eva Maria [performing name Violette] (1724–1822), dancer, & David Garrick (1717–1779), actor & playwright, Garrick was perhaps one of the most famous men of his day & possibly the first true "self-publicist" & celebrity. An actor of skill & energy he transformed the 18C stage, revolutionizing not only theater production, but its moral & social status as well. He brought about a renaissance of the work of William Shakespeare, & his 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, held at Stratford-upon-Avon, cemented the bard’s position as the greatest dramatist in the English language. Garrick, who had been tutored as a young man by Samuel Johnson.. His promotion of Shakespearean theater took on a more active role when he assumed the management of the Drury Lane Theatre.  In 1755, he commissioned the leading architect of the day, Robert Adam, to erect a temple in Shakespeare’s honor in the grounds of his villa at Hampton-on-Thames, for which he commissioned a life size marble statue of the bard from Louis-François Roubiliac (now in the British museum), visible here through the open doorway. In early 1762, shortly after the painter's arrival in Britain, David Garrick commissioned Zoffany to paint a scene from his play The Farmer’s Return, with Garrick himself in the role of the Farmer & Mrs Bradshaw as the Farmer’s Wife. Garrick invited Zoffany to stay with his family at their villa in Hampton-on-Thames in the summer of 1762, a privilege he did not extend to any other major artist, & it was here that the present conversation piece was executed. Garrick & his wife are set against the backdrop of Garrick’s Shakespeare Temple (designed by Robert Adam & erected in 1755-56 in homage to the great bard). Playing among the columns of the temple is a small boy, probably Garrick’s nephew George, the son of Carrington Garrick, whilst entering from the right a servant brings out a tray of tea.

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.