British History in the Long 18th Century
7 November 2012
Kate Retford (Birkbeck, University of London)
What’s in a Name?: The ‘Conversation’ Piece in Eighteenth-Century Britain


A Conversation piece (wikipedia)

A Conversation piece (wikipedia)

For the uninitiated (that would include me, I’m afraid!) ‘conversation’ pieces is a term used to describe an informal array of portraits, mainly from Britain, and popular in the eighteenth century.  As a group they tend to be small in size and portray some activity either indoors or outdoors relating to ordinary life.  As Kate Retford explains they were generally more focused on the details of the setting rather than the people themselves.

In this paper Kate Retford focuses on two inter-related questions.  First, the difficult question of establishing exactly what was meant and is now meant as ‘conversation’ pieces.  Were they one and the same or has the category evolved over time (especially in the historiography).  The second question is more general.  What is the meaning and significance of the term ‘conversation’ within the confines of this category of art work?  Neither question has straight forward answers.

The standard checklist for ‘conversation’ pieces is that they are to be set on a small-scale canvas, are to be intimate and informal portraits, and will focus on the setting and context more than the people themselves.  However, Retford’s investigations show that many genre pictures were also called ‘conversation’ pieces and that the hard and fast rules don’t always apply.  In many cases the ‘conversation’ piece was described as an examination of behaviour, tastes and possessions accurate to a given time and place.  This was, indeed, one of their uses – the ability to capture a moment in time.  But it is nonetheless far from a simple picture.


To listen to this podcast click here.