Journal Article

From the Interior to Interiority: The Conversation Piece in Georgian England

Kate Retford

in Journal of Design History

Published on behalf of Design History Society

Volume 20, issue 4, pages 291-307
Published in print January 2007 | ISSN: 0952-4649
Published online January 2007 | e-ISSN: 1741-7279 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jdh/epm026
From the Interior to Interiority: The Conversation Piece in Georgian England

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This article explores the Georgian interior as represented in conversation piece portraits. It discusses the relationship between real and depicted rooms and furnishings and considers the meanings and values conveyed by painted interiors. The article begins by examining the relatively bare settings of Arthur Devis, which emphasized restrained good taste, in contrast to William Hogarth's more lavish scenes of refined consumption. It then discusses the implications of Devis's reuse of the same interiors for different patrons. Such settings were not intended to represent specific spaces. Rather, like the interiors of Hogarth's modern moral subject paintings, they were to be understood as signifiers of abstract virtues—their generic quality enhancing their legibility. Moving on to the 1760s, the article considers Johan Zoffany's revitalization of the conversation piece, combining lavish description of things with a new sense of intimacy and affect. In contrast to Devis, Zoffany notably depicted rooms and objects owned by his patrons, albeit combined in invented ways and with fictive possessions in order to strengthen their iconographic power. The article ends by speculating about some of the reasons for this distinction, including the social status of their patrons, the changing nature of the art world and developments in the luxury debate.

Keywords: conversation piece; Devis; eighteenth century; interior; portraiture; Zoffany

Journal Article.  8642 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Art ; Art Forms ; Industrial and Commercial Art ; Art Styles

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