This past weekend, I visited the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, PA. I was at the art museum primarily to see the exhibition Killer Heels (more about that in a future post), but I also stopped by the European galleries. There I discovered this painting: Sir Joshua Vanneck and Family at Roehampton House, Putney by Arthur Devis.
It's what is known as a "conversation piece," a specific style of painting popular in 18thc Britain that usually shows the gentleman who commissioned the painting surrounded by his family in an elegant setting to display his wealth and taste. In theory, the people in the painting have been captured in a conversation, or engaged in a well-bred pastime such as drinking tea, playing music, or resting after a long walk.
Sir Joshua Vanneck (1702-1777) was born in The Hague and emigrated to London, where he became a successful merchant - though not quite successful enough to afford the house and grounds of Roehampton House, which appears in the painting, and which was owned by the Cary family. (The Vannecks' house was Heveningham Hall, Yoxford, Suffolk.) Sir Joshua and his extended family must have been strolling the grounds as visitors. Sir Joshua's full title was 1st Baronet Vanneck, of Putney, Surrey, where Roehampton House is located, and likely explains the reason for the setting.
As 18thc artists go, Arthur Devis (1711-1769) is never mentioned in the same breath as Georgian giants like Joshua Reynolds or Thomas Gainsborough. The painted Vanneck family could all be little dolls, their expressions nearly identical and their anatomy a bit uncertain. But as a chronicler of fashion, Devis shines. The silk gowns not only possess the perfect glossy shine, but also reveal slight puckers along the seams, and the lace trimmings are exquisitely captured, with the curving detail (I'm guessing) carved into the thick paint with the pointed end of the painter's brush.
The Vannecks are all stylish, according to their ages: Sir Joshua and his wife Mary Anne are conservatively dressed in clothes that are a bit old-fashioned, while their twin sons Gerrard and Joshua are dressed in the simpler versions of the adults' clothing. The young women in the center - daughters Margaret, Elizabeth, Anne Maria, and Gertrude (though I confess I don't know which is which) - are of course the most fashion-conscious.
I've pulled out several of my favorite details - as always, please click on the images to enlarge them. The embroidered kerchiefs, ruffles, and aprons (probably silk gauze or fine linen) are sheer enough to be layered over one another. Patterned ribbons zig-zag across their stomachers, the pointed inserts on the fronts of the gowns. The shapes of the hoops beneath the skirts are clearly defined. Caps are worn beneath the broad-brimmed hats. All three of these young ladies are wearing white fingerless mitts lined with a colored silk to match their gowns; you can see the pointed tips flipped back to show the contrasting pieces. And I love how the younger brother, about eight years old, is already wearing his hair in neat rows of side curls, pinned in place on either side of his face like an adult.
Details, Sir Joshua Vanneck and Family at Roehampton House, Putney by Arthur Devis, 1752, Frick Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
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.