The conversation piece, the subject of an intriguing exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery (until 14 February 2010), is a peculiarly British sub-genre of a sub-genre. Traditionally, it shows an informal gathering of friends or family in a domestic or landscape setting. It is thus a spin-off first of formal portraiture and then of group portraiture and is a form that came to prominence in the 18th century when practised by Hogarth, Zoffany and Gainsborough. Quite why it should so appeal to our national taste is not entirely clear but there was obviously something in the British monarchy’s psyche and ton that made them want to pretend that, for all their wealth and position, they were really middle class at heart. Some are so charming that the viewer is even taken in.
While all the pictures in this chronological survey are drawn from the Royal Collection not all are proper conversation pieces. There is enough of the real thing, however, to give an idea of how the genre evolved. And like most British art its origins lay abroad, in this case in the Dutch interior scenes of De Hooch, Teniers et al.
It was a Dutchman, Hendrick Pot, who painted the earliest work in this show, a stilted triple portrait of Charles I, Henrietta Maria and the infant Prince of Wales (1632). It shows the Royal couple at opposite ends of a long table on which the future Charles II sits and almost topples off.
The king himself, as if to prove how fatally unwilling he was ever to lessen the authority of the crown, stands stiffly, hand on sword, toe pointing outwards and stares the artist down. It makes for an uncomfortable grouping in which the idea of any conversation actually taking place is inconceivable. Poor Pot must have been every bit as uncomfortable while painting it.
As time progressed both artists and subjects grew more accustomed to the idea of being shown at their ease. This is a very uneven exhibition but even the poor pictures — of which there are many — have their own delights. Marcellus Laroon’s A Dinner Party (1725), for example, is a curious mixture of bombast, naivety and caricature but it is packed with incident and painted with brio. He captures the flavour of a lively meal even while failing to capture the nuances of physiognomy.
Where this exhibition comes into its own is with Zoffany, sometimes known as “the one-eyed German” because of his squint. He may have had only one good eye but it was an eye for pattern and colour. His paintings of Queen Charlotte at her dressing table with her sons or in a park with her children and brothers are packed tight with detail and the shimmer of silks or the nap of fustian are immaculately rendered. They are lovely displays of tender maternity and perfectly capture George III’s wife not as a queen but as simply “Mrs King”.
Zoffany’s most spectacular exercise in the genre, indeed the most spectacular of all conversation pieces, is his microscopically rendered The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-7), which shows a collection of dignitaries and amateurs examining the art works squeezed into the famous treasure room in the Uffizi. Using a carefully skewed perspective, Zoffany opens up this jewel box to display its contents — a Raphael Madonna, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, antique statues — in a way that would be impossible in the room itself. No wonder the figures gathered round each piece talk to each other, and no wonder the picture inspires conversation in its viewers. Not all the talk was favourable though. George III criticised Zoffany for including so many unknown people and the painter never worked for the royal family again. There was, it is clear, a fine line between royal condescension and lèse majesté.
Other highlights include an ethereal Gainsborough of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland out for a stroll and a clutch of fine works by Stubbs, which aren’t quite conversation pieces at all. The Landseers are, though, most notably the portrait of Queen Victoria, Albert and the Princess Royal in a drawing room in Windsor Castle. Surrounding them are the family’s adoring dogs and, heedless of the carpet, a selection of dead game birds the prince has just brought home after a day’s shooting. The young princess is fascinated by a lifeless kingfisher — a “Halcyon”, symbol of peace — but the almost unnoticeable detail that makes this a quintessential conversation piece is the scene through the window where the Queen’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, is being wheeled around the gardens in a bath chair. That is a true lack of pomp.
It is the non-human world that is the subject of the small exhibition currently running at the Courtauld Gallery, Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-62 (until 17 January). This is an exhibition of only 14 paintings and a selection of drawings but it is nevertheless a potent one.
Auerbach, born in 1931, was sent to England from Berlin by his Jewish parents shortly before the outbreak of war. He witnessed first-hand the destruction wrought by German bombs and started this series of paintings in the aftermath during his last years in art school. They show the first steps at reconstruction in his adopted city.
The paintings transmit both the mess of the cavernous holes where buildings once stood and a sense of organic growth as new structures fight their way out of the city clay, with girders and scaffolding sprouting like fronds. It was an epic struggle: “London after the war”, recalls Auerbach, “was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama.” This atavism is present on the picture surfaces themselves, Auerbach reworking his canvases until the paint — in earth colours turning to livid reds and yellows — lies almost an inch thick in places.
But what is most exciting about the pictures is that, as the new city rises in them, the emergence of Auerbach as a mature artist is palpable too.