Ickworth conversation pieces

Conversation piece is the name given to a type of group portraiture. Works of this sort are usually small in scale and show an informal group of family members or friends. They're sometimes, but not always, engaged in conversation.

This type of painting was particularly favoured in England in the 18th century. Artists such as Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) painted conversation pieces. Though here at Ickworth we have portraits by Zoffany and Gainsborough we don't have any conversation pieces by them. We do however have ones by William Hogarth, William Hoare, and Hubert-François Gravelot and others which you can see in the Smoking Room.

    The Hervey conversation piece

    Lord John Hervey (1696-1743) is in the centre wearing a grey coat and holding his key as Vice-Chamberlain of the King’s Household. He's surrounded by a group of his Whig friends, some like Hogarth, were also Freemasons.

    If you look carefully you'll notice the gentleman standing on the chair in the left of the picture is about to topple backwards. Conversation pieces like many other paintings often contain hidden jokes.

    The 3rd Earl greets his family

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    This shows the future 3rd Earl with his mother, his two married sisters and their husbands, Constantine Phipps, later Lord Mulgrave, and George Fitzgerald.

    We believe it to have been commissioned in October 1750, when all the sitters were in Paris. The artist Gravelot had been commissioned to paint the bodies of the group and bizarrely the artist Liotard was comissioned simply to paint their heads. In the end though Liotard completed only the heads of the Phipps, and Gravelot painted the heads of the Fitzgeralds and Lady Hervey. However Lady Hervey was dissatisfied with the result and subsequently had her own head and that of her son painted back in England.

    The ship in the background seems to be the 3rd Earl’s last command, the Dragon.

    The Earl Bishop presents his son

    Although not as crowded as many conversation pieces this has the same purpose. It shows the Earl-Bishop presenting his son and heir John Augustus, to the ex-Prime Minister William Pitt. Pitt was an advocate of a strong navy, and John Augustus is about to go to sea for the first time.

    The artist is William Hoare (1707-1792) who was a member of the Royal Academy and the leading portrait artist in Bath until the arrival in the town of Thomas Gainsborough. Although William Hoare was a very competent artist, his paintings possibly lack the psychological depth of Gainsborough's which might explain why Hoare was knocked from his top spot. You can see a magnificent portrait of the 3rd Earl of Bristol by Gainsborough in the drawing room so perhaps you might like to decide yourself who's the better artist.

    Almost a conversation piece

    Like a conversation piece ‘The Death of Wolfe’ by Benjamin West is an imaginary grouping of people. Although the man holding the dying General’s right hand is the 1st Earl of Bristol’s grandson Captain Hervey Smyth, this is not a grouping of friends or family engaged in informal activity.

    This type of painting is a generally called an history painting. The capturing of a notable moment in history was considered the grandest level of painting. Portrait painting was very lucrative, but history painting had the higher prestige.

    General James Wolfe died in 1759 at the battle of Quebec from French musket fire. He was a friend of Lord John Hervey’s daughter, Lady Mulgrave (1723-80) and his aide-de-camp shown to the left of the dying man, was a grandson of the 1st Earl, Captain Hervey Smyth.

    This is the fourth version of the painting completed for the Earl-Bishop, who described Wolfe as: ‘My military saint, who deserves much more to be canoniz’d than any religious one I have ever read of.’