Loretta's recent post on the elaborately patterned wallpaper in the 1809 Hedge House reminded me of the even more elaborate wallpaper of the 18th century. I've written here about the eye-popping replica wallpaper used in some of Colonial Williamsburg's houses. But today I'm offering painted proof of just how busy all that pattern could become in the Conversation Piece, above, by Philip Hussey (1713-1783), c. 1760.
Conversation pieces were a distinct sub-genre of British painting popular in the Georgian era. I think of them as "action portraits", featuring several individuals interacting with one another in a room, landscape, or even on a barge on the Thames. Often conversation pieces feature several generations of a family, but they can include friends, servants, and favorite dogs and horses, too. Portraits can reveal much about the sitter's wealth and rank through dress, but the setting of a conversation piece can show far more, often including the sitter's country house in the background, or perhaps clues to a special pastime enjoyed by the sitter, like astronomy, music, art collecting, or hunting.
Sometimes, however, the setting seems to overwhelm the sitters. There's little doubt that the parents in the painting above are proud of their young children, but clearly they wanted their elegantly appointed parlor highlighted, too. I can't find these sitters' identity (if anyone else recognizes them, please let me know! Update: Possibly members of the Corbally family from Rathbeale Co Dublin, Ireland - see the comment below.), but I'm guessing they were prosperous members of the rising middle class. This painting is full of pride of ownership. In addition to their fashionable clothing, rich with silk and lace, the sitters have a full set of stylish mahogany chairs, upholstered in black leather; a room-size patterned carpet (very grand in an era where most floors were still bare); a pair of painted or needlework fire screens; and gilded candlesticks by the fireplace.
But what most viewers notice first is the wallpaper. Wallpaper inspired by classical architecture was the height of fashion in the mid-18th c. Not only did it show the owners' taste and appreciation for the architecture of both classical ruins and the grand country houses of the nobility, but it also gave a sense of grandeur and detail to a room lacking its own architectural distinction. The wallpaper was also in itself a display of wealth. Wallpaper was costly, and printed with hand-carved wood blocks. The cost rose with the complexity of the design and colors, and the size of the repeat of the pattern likely made the wallpaper in this room very expensive indeed – which is why it's not covered with any paintings or mirrors. It's supposed to wow on its own, and it does.
Above: Conversation Piece, possibly of members of the Corbally Family, by Philip Hussey, c. 1760. National Gallery of Ireland.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.