Heirs without the graces

    A “conversation piece” is an informal group portrait of a family at home or a gathering of friends, having a conversation. This quaint niche genre was an English speciality that was particularly popular in the 18th century. In the hands of Hogarth, Devis, Gainsborough, it became a fine national achievement that appeared to put its finger on a quintessentially English mood. I would love to set a hungry psychiatrist onto the genre, to explain to me why the ruling classes favoured a view of ruling that involved so much supping of tea. Why they preferred art on such a tiny scale. And why so much muttering among themselves goes on in conversation pieces, and so little looking at us. But whatever the deeper, truer reasons for the popularity of the informal group portrait, popular it was, not only in the country houses of Gainsborough’s Suffolk and Devis’s Cheshire, but in the royal residences as well: in Windsor Castle, Whitehall and Buckingham Palace.

    These days, the genre is chronically unfashionable. We like our portraiture bigger and more direct. For the Queen’s Gallery, therefore, to assemble the first survey of conversation pieces in living memory is either a display of tone-setting cultural bravery or evidence of a right royal out-of-touchness. Either way, the results are engrossing.

    The real joy of a conversation piece is not actually the portraiture on offer, but the peep into another way of life: the look through the keyhole. The sitters may be too small or too turned away to tell us much about their true selves, but the details of the world they inhabit are often fascinating. Charles I is the first British royal to feign informality here, in a painting by Hendrick Pot from 1632, which shows him standing by a window with Henrietta Maria and their first baby, the future Charles II, perched a tad precariously on the edge of a table. It’s not even a real room, but a fabricated space made up of imported royal furnishings. In fact, some heavyweight political symbolism is intended, with the infant Prince of Wales holding up an olive branch to represent national hopes for future peace. But the painting is so tiny that its false sense of informality seems to squash the intended national symbolism.

    The earliest conversation pieces here are not really conversation pieces. They are small group portraits in the Dutch manner, whose modest scale has been governed as much by the poky dimensions of the typical Amsterdam townhouse in the 17th century as by Calvinist values or republican tendencies. However, when the 18th-century English took over the genre, something happened. It was almost a chemical reaction. The mood quickly lightens. The small scale, the informal setting and the English temperament form an immediate relationship and bond beautifully. When the conversation piece decamps outdoors, into the faux parks and false countrysides of Georgian England, the genre can be said to have found its metier.

    Hogarth, such a skilled and wicked observer of Georgian bigwigs, observes the Popple family on a fishing trip, six of them crowded around one rod in a tiny riverside clearing. The painter tries hard to tell them apart and anoints each of them, daughters and fathers alike, with a touch of silliness. A clumsier painter, John Wooton, paints Frederick, Prince of Wales, out hunting with his pals John Spencer and Charles Douglas, and captures a sense of immense outdoor indolence at the event, as if the royal stalking consists chiefly of chatter with an occasional stroll.

    Frederick turns out to be one of the survey’s key presences. This notoriously rebellious son of George II did what he could to annoy his royal parents, including appearing in as many relaxed conversation pieces as possible. Joseph Nickolls shows him strolling down the Mall while London whores ply their trade behind him, London mothers breast-feed their babes around him and a London dog does a big London poo right in front of him. “My God,” said his mother, Queen Caroline, “popularity always makes me sick, but Fretz’s popularity makes me vomit.” A visiting Frenchman, Philippe Mercier, shows Frederick at home, eagerly bowing his cello, accompanied by his sisters on harpsichord and lute. As a picture, it is sweet and slight. The gathered royals look as if they have been evicted from a doll’s house. But even in this tiny, stiff, mannered form, their rebellion is notable. This isn’t how princes of Wales are supposed to look.

    The various royal Georges play various important roles in the story of the conversation piece. George III’s chosen painter, Johann Zoffany, a fellow German, is often thought to be the genre’s master, and the half-dozen Zoffanys gathered here are undoubtedly works of high skill and ambition. In 1772, George sent Zoffany off to Italy for five years of study, and the result is a monstrously complicated portrayal of the Tribuna gallery at the Uffizi in Florence, in which a gaggle of grand tourists is shown crowding into a room overflowing with Renaissance masterpieces and classical statues. So many people are surrounded by so many art works, your eye has trouble registering the mix. It’s an impressive display of technique and organisation. And that’s what’s wrong with it.

    Native English conversation pieces are wonkier and more atmospheric, less assured, more rustic. They smell, not of Florence and the Renaissance, but of Suffolk and the stables. The genre’s spirit is better caught in Gainsborough’s delightful scene of the Duke of Cumberland strolling through a feathery park with his duchess. Or any of the fine Stubbs paintings displayed here of George IV and his horse world.

    The show tells the curious story of an increased royal ambition to appear ordinary. The ruling family can be witnessed developing a hesitant desire to look like the rest of us. The small scale of the conversation piece, with its innate lack of grandeur, lends itself well to this task. And by the time we reach Victoria’s reign, the metamorphosis from divine ruler to member of the family is complete.

    In the show’s culminating image, by Landseer, Albert and Victoria are shown in their living room after the prince has returned from the hunt. We are actually at Windsor Castle, though you’d never know it. The Queen and Albert lock gazes, fondly, and completely ignore the fact that everything Albert has shot is spread out around them on the floor. A duck. A woodcock. A pheasant. Nobody cares about the blood on the carpet. A royal chappie can clean it up. The royal daughter, meanwhile, plays with a dead kingfisher, or halcyon, a historic symbol of peace, which her father has just shot. Its presence is again intended to symbolise peaceful national hopes for the future. Nobody seems to have realised that symbolising peace by giving your daughter a dead bird to fondle is such peculiar everyday behaviour.