Saturday, August 11, 2018

PERSONAL BRANDING in 18C - GARDEN Conversation Pieces

Arthur Devis (English Painter, c1712-1787) Edward Gordon, His Sister Mrs Miles, and her (rather supplicant) Husband in Their Garden at Bromley.  Edward Gordon leans against a balustrade. Behind the balustrade & to his right is Mrs Miles in a satin dress. Mr Miles with a gun & dog offers a pheasant. He sits in the area just off the rather formally tiled garden terrace on one of those popular circular wooden benches constructed around a single tree.  And, of course, 2 dogs are in attendance.

In the early 18C a style of portraiture emerged, the conversation piece, which often depicted sitters outside in a garden or parkland setting. One of the greatest exponents of this style was Arthur Devis, who painted the rising gentry, merchant, & professional classes of Georgian England at ease around their own homes & estates. Devis was born in 1712, & studied under topographical landscape artist Peter Tillemans.  He probably would have been copying classical Italian landscape paintings which were already influencing British garden design.  However, Devis developed his own style, more naive than romantic. And, Devis switched to portrait painting, but not the standard rather stuffy posed pictures copying the style of court portraiture.  The smaller "conversation piece" became his speciality.  It’s a cozy,  domestic style of portraiture generally smaller in scale with subjects posed informally often surrounded by their possessions. Devis has over 300 surviving paintings ascribed to him. They often display the "polite" attitudes from manuals of etiquette rather than being "natural" or "lively" portraits in the style of his contemporaries like Hogarth.  Devis doesn’t aim to show the sitters personality but their status.  But mid-18C saw a lot of changes to the way that a professional artist worked. Direct patronage by commission declined, with more artists holding public exhibitions offering works for sale, as was already happening in Paris.  Groups of painters gathered in the Society of Artists & later the Royal Academy, lesser artists joined the Free Society of Artists with whom Devis exhibited in 1761.  Now that artists could show their work relatively freely, they could experiment with new styles & genres; & the "conversation piece" went into decline.  Devis did not switch styles, so gradually found himself unable to compete with more fashionable contemporaries such as Zoffany. The opinionated Horace Walpole was vitriolic about exhibitions of the Free Artists: “This is an execrable imposition & half the pictures old rubbish.” From then on it was downhill for Devis who was no longer not only not fashionable but not even acceptable. One potential buyer wrote, “he desired it might be by one Mr Devis…I am much afraid it will be frightful for I understand, his pictures are all of a sort; they are whole lengths of about 2 feet long & the person is always represented in a genteel attitude, either leaning against a pillar, or standing by a flower pot, or leading an Italian greyhound on a  string, or in some other ingenious pose.”  In other words this sort of thing, which had been alright 10 years earlier, was now only appropiate for the lower orders.  Devis exhibited less & less; & although he took on pupils, he ended up mostly restoring & cleaning pictures.  In 1783, Devis moved to Brighton, & there was an auction of  "Pictures belonging to Mr. Devis of Great Queen Street, Portrait Painter & Picture-Cleaner." He died there 4 years later.  Finally, in the 1970s some art historians noted that Devis was, indeed, “a master of his special craft, that of describing, in small compass, the ideals of a privileged society.”

Since the mid-20C, personal branding or self-packaging has described a burgeoning process of attempting to establish a prescribed image or impression in the minds of others about an individual or a family.  With no instant & far-reaching social media or digitally-aided forms of disclosure in the 18C, that wasn't so easy.  But that kind of perception could be reinforced through Conversation Piece portraits.  Pioneered by William Hogarth (1697–1764) & Philip Mercier (1689-1760) in the early 18C, & continued by Arthur Devis (1712-1787), George Stubbs (1724-1806), Johan Zoffany (1733–1810) & others, the Conversation Piece was a new form of portraiture, depicting groups of traditional & aspiring gentry often in country house garden landscape settings.

A growing, affluent middle class was emerging, as Britain’s colonial empire prospered in the 17C & 18C, & its Industrial Revolution began.  The dissolution of England's monasteries in the 1530s had led to new land ownership, and consequently to a new class of non-aristocratic landowners. The power battles between this new class & the old finally led to the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.  Often socially spurned by established aristocracy, these newly-wealthy merchants, industrialists, & landowners assumed more casual manners enlivening both novels & group portraits. These new portrait Conversation Pieces & novels, like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice & Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, attempted to portray a more relaxed narrative of the prosperous middle class rather than the stiff allegories & heroic epic poems preferred by earlier aristocrats. Painters were commissioned to hold a mirror to this emerging English society more intimately portrayed in still sought-after planned environments participating in activities expected of "natural leaders" at their elegantly country house landscapes.  No longer were families simply rather stiffly painted outdoors, as they were in the 17C, when budding science was promoting man as the "interpreter of Nature."  Now the newly-privileged yearned to appear in complex multi-figured compositions, filled with more relaxed representations of traditional, socially-proper customs & activities. The vibrant (& at times wholly fabricated) settings in these works reflect the aspirations of the emerging material culture of Georgian Britain. 

Typically those depicted were members of an immediate family, but in-laws, friends & colleagues could be included; & sometimes, significant deceased relatives also appeared.  Occasionally, artists depicted organized gatherings of elite gentlemen discussing new science or scholarship. The settings of outdoor Conversation Pieces reflected the image the client wanted to present, especially the ideal landscape or more-natural garden, which he wanted to portray as the upper-class setting of his everyday activities.  And so, these Conversation Pieces are a great way to see what those in the 18C aspired to have in their planned, personal landscapes. The subjects of outdoor Conversation Pieces were depicted enjoying a variety of genteel pastimes, whether or not they actually could do the activities. Elites, aspiring or long-established, were painted sharing common activities such as hunting, fishing, outdoor meals & musical parties. Dogs & horses were also frequently included as proper gentry accessories.

For much more biographical information on Devis, see: A Conversation with Arthur Devis Posted on 11/03/2017 by The Blog of The Gardens Trust