Scenes of Fashionable Life - The Conversation Piece at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace

By Anne Field | 19 November 2009
A picture of a painting of ancient royalty in a room full of paintings

Exhibition: The Conversation Piece – Scenes of Fashionable Life, The Queen’s Gallery, London, until February 14 2010

This featured exhibition at Buckingham Palace stars pictures taken directly from the Royal Collection, denuding even the Queen’s dining rooms.

Tasked with devising common themes for the show, curator Desmond Shawe-Taylor chose to focus on the phenomenon which permeated English painting and the Royal Collection in the 18th century. The exhibition catalogue for the show is the first publication covering the topic for more 30 years.

The works begin with examples from the Netherlands in the 17th century, as a growing merchant class sought to depict their affluent lifestyle through a new type of portraiture.

Spreading in popularity to England in the 18th century and throughout Europe by the 19th century, these Conversation Pieces record not only people, but also a way of life.

A picture of a painting of a vast royal dining hall

Bartholomeus van Bassen, The King and Queen of Bohemia Dining in Public (1634). Acquired by George II or Queen Caroline from the Countess of Pomfret, 1729.© The Royal Collection 2009, Queen Elizabeth II

Communal dining, hunting, and enjoyment of music are among the depictions of private lives recorded in these images, which are governed less by structured symbolism than by demonstrations of an enlightened attitude and society. The works offer an insight into society style and manners, informally and without ceremony.

It may seem ordinary to depict social situations, just as photographs today regularly document gatherings. However, these familial images, made fashionable within the merchant class, are entirely unusual when they depict Royalty.

Relaxed communal activities are featured, with the sitters engaged in a collective activity that does not emphasise the presence of royalty.

A picture of a painting of green land

A View of Greenwich (circa 1632), Adriaen van Stalbemt with Jan van Belcamp, painted for Charles I. © The Royal Collection 2009, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Lively scenes with children show how heirs to thrones are as indistinguishable alongside other family members. Ranging from crowded walks in the park to hunting scenes, their innate informality makes their popularity with royal subjects surprising.

At a time when the Royal family suffered under presumptions of stiff pettiness, these images of them engaging in ordinary activities aided in combating stereotypes.

Paintings by Sir Edward Landseer, Thomas Gainsborough, George Stubbs and Johan Zoffany, among others, adorn two rooms for the exhibition.

Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi is a particularly interesting piece, presenting a room lavishly packed with artwork while tourists observe and debate.

A picture of a painting of ancient royalty relaxing in a decadent rouge room

Charles I, Henrietta Maria and the Prince of Wales (circa 1632, acquired by George IV from the Baring Collection in 1814). © The Royal Collection 2009, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It may not have been appreciated at the time, but the piece is an exciting glimpse into Zoffany’s idealised enlightened society in the Age of Sensibility.

Zoffany’s painting is often highlighted as a quintessential image of the Grand Tour. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view this image and many other valuable pieces from the Royal Collection before they return to their home.

Open throughout the winter. Admission £8.50/£7.50 (includes re-admission for a year.) Visit the exhibition online.

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