• 14 May 2014
  • 6:00 – 8:00 pm
  • Seminar Room, Paul Mellon Centre
People standing on riverbank with man in boat

Francis Wheatley, The Oliver and Ward Families, circa 1778, oil on canvas, B1976.2.4

Digital image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The conversation piece was a new mode of small group portraiture which emerged in England in the late 1720s and 1730s. It offered many advantages as a form of portrayal, and key amongst these was the potential for including substantial numbers of figures on a single canvas. Whilst this was exploited to represent many kinds of familial and non-familial relationships (often overlapping), a dominant theme was the extended kinship group. Titles such as 'The Cromwell and Thornhill Families' (Charles Philips, c.1730) or 'The du Cane and Boehm Families' (Gawen Hamilton, 1734-5) draw our attention to the fact that many constellations of sitters in conversation pieces are underpinned by affinal networks; by bilateral connections established on the marriage of members of two families. Kinship has been a notoriously difficult issue for historians to access, and I will argue that the conversation piece gives us an invaluable insight into the nature and significance of these extended relationships.

To book your place please contact the Centre's Co-ordinator Ella Fleming on: [email protected]

About the speaker

  • Kate Retford headshot in front of foliage

    Kate Retford is Professor of History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on eighteenth-century British art, particularly on gender, portraiture, and the country house. Her recent publications include The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2017) and The Georgian London Town House: Building, Collecting and Display, co-edited with Susanna Avery-Quash (2019). She is currently working on a book about print rooms in eighteenth-century country houses, funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship in 2021–2022.