• 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, ca. 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: efleming@paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk  

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Kate Retford

    Kate Retford is a professor of art history at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on eighteenth-century British art, particularly on portraiture and the country house art collection. Her work includes The Art of Domestic Life: Family Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century England (2006); Placing Faces: The Portrait and the English Country House in the Long Eighteenth Century, co-edited with Gill Perry et al. (2013); and The Georgian London Town House: Building, Collecting and Display, co-edited with Susanna Avery-Quash (2019). Her recent book on the eighteenth-century British conversation piece, The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, was published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in 2017, winning a Historians of British Art award. She is currently working on a book about print rooms in eighteenth-century country houses, and developing a new research project looking at the presentation of the country house as family home.