If you shuffle through the autumn leaves in St James’s Park and take a turn around the current exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, you will find much to feed the eye, and boggle the mind.
The Conversation Piece: Scenes from Fashionable Life is a journey through time. It opens windows on the various ways the rich found to waste their days, but is truly gripped by a more perplexing lifestyle question: how to be a monarch and resemble a human being.
The tour begins in 1632, with an embarrassing daub of Charles I and his queen. Their infant Charles II is about to tumble off a table, but his parents seem not to care. They have plonked their heir there, by crown, sceptre and an olive branch, to send a message. Namely, that the royal family is at peace with its subjects. Sadly, history proved otherwise.
35 paintings and two centuries later, the tour ends with another public family faking a private life. In one, doll-like Queen Victoria simpers at Albert, who has brought her corpses, fresh from a day’s shooting. Sir Edwin Landseer’s brush springs to life depicting their begging dogs, but the waxen couple see only each other. Meanwhile, their toddler daughter fondles a dead kingfisher. With such macabre propaganda, sold in prints, Victoria claimed her people’s hearts.
These two images seem consistent, but if this exhibition were a conversation, it would be a quarrel. (No raised voices, mind; this is Buckingham palace.) Two topics are in dispute. First, what is a ‘conversation piece’? Second, how can royalty, of all people, be trendy? And these questions are beside the real point of the show, a dazzling clutch of canvases by Johan Zoffany.
Where to start? With chipper Fleet Street optician, John Cuff, basking in golden light among the widgets of his trade? Or Queen Charlotte, wan wife of loopy George III, immobilised in her corset as two sons scamper in fancy dress. Tellingly, she touches neither, only her gigantic hound. I began wondering about our current monarch’s affections – corgis versus offspring.
The showstopper is 1777’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi, which celebrates of the Grand Tour. A hubbub of English aristocrats and homosexual collectors leer at naked Venus and Hercules in the octagonal room of the Uffizi gallery, jewel box of the Medicis’ art collection. Zoffany even smuggles in himself, flogging a Raphael to a duke. And the viewer knows not where to look. Each inch is pasted with perfect renderings, at postcard and stamp size, of Rubens, Titians, Holbeins.
This miraculous work has ironic shades. Sent to Italy by Queen Charlotte, Zoffany spent five years living it up in Italy, buying and selling art, while drawing a fat salary. If he hoped to compensate for the long absence with his virtuoso daring, he credited his patron with too much taste. Like most royals, Charlotte was concerned less with fashion than the image she projected. And she would not entertain such tourists, however grand – certainly not on the walls of her apartments. Thus Zoffany’s masterpiece ruined his career.
As a result, the royal collection has only seven works by Zoffany. Hence the broader scope of this exhibition, which tackles questions about the conversation piece, a style of painting that became fashionable in Britain in the 1730s, influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch family portraits (a mixed bunch are on display). Such works are concerned with conversation in its oldest sense, ‘social interaction’. They show groups, at less than life-size, engaged in posh hobbies. So they are about wasting time elegantly – about being genteel, not regal.
Can you imagine a relaxing conversation with Queen Victoria? Exactly. But if this exhibition is not what it pretends, it is fun, and suggestive.
The history of the conversation piece echoes the history of conversation as an art, which was an idea born in conversazione, parties of wealthy Renaissance Italians. It evolved in seventeenth-century salons of aristocrats tired of Versailles. Then Dutch merchants aped French manners, then the conversation morphed again in England, with the boom in newspapers, coffee shops, and that mercurial beast, public opinion. If the art of conversation was a democratic force, the conversation piece celebrated the middle class, seizing power off those lumpen Hanoverian kings.
So instead of ‘conversation pieces’, this exhibition presents those Hanoverians, playing at gentlefolk, in vistas reminiscent of Hello! magazine. There are some fine Stubbs, merry-go-round horses, and panoramas of ladies tugging up stockings while high and low promenade along Pall Mall. But nothing more hilarious than puce George IV by his phaeton (the eighteenth-century Ferrari), of whom Thackeray sneered ‘he signalized his entrance into the world by a feat worthy of his future life. He invented a new shoebuckle.’
And say hello to the forgotten Prince of Wales, Frederick, at his cello. Had he survived, how cultured might the Windsors be? And on another wall, there is his secret society, ‘la table ronde’, of groupies in military garb, reading each other speeches. Do William and Harry declaim sonnets in Mahiki? I doubt it.
So go and look, and laugh.
As seen in The Lady magazine