The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life, the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, review

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A "conversation piece" is an informal group portrait in which the sitters are shown at full length on a scale much smaller than life. The advantage of this format is that it allows the painter to place the sitters in a domestic setting – usually their own home or garden – surrounded by property and possessions to indicate their social status or financial success.

Unlike straightforward portraiture, therefore, the painter of conversation pieces must be able to paint interiors, still lifes, flowers and landscapes. A direct outgrowth of Dutch 17th-century domestic portraiture, the genre became fashionable in England in the 1720s and '30s, when Hogarth, to take one example, painted more than two dozen such group portraits.

There was a revival of interest in the conversation piece in the 1760s, in part because of the new King George III's taste for family portraits by the German painter Johann Zoffany, but also because the English artist Nathaniel Dance made a speciality of painting English gentlemen on the Grand Tour.

It is often said that the conversation piece is associated with portraits of middle-class sitters. That this is only partially true is demonstrated by an enchanting show of paintings from the Royal Collection at the Queen's Gallery in Edinburgh, where many of the very best examples of the genre show royal sitters.
The challenge of the conversation piece is to create a composition in which a group of people (who may or may not be related to each other) look as though they are interacting naturally. That this isn't easy to achieve is clear from one of the first pictures in the exhibition, Hendrick Pot's 1632 double portrait of King Charles I with Queen Henrietta Maria, with the two-year-old Prince of Wales, later Charles II. The young couple are placed at the left and right of the composition, separated by a long table on which are displayed two essential royal props: the crown and sceptre (to tell you who these people are), and the baby (to tell you that the royal line will continue)...

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