conversation pieces

The collage work of Peter Blake and Jann Haworth remains one of the most iconic works of design in pop culture. But, these types of original work are not created in a vaccum and there was an English tradition of portraiture beginning in the eighteenth-century that may have been at the origin of the Beatles cover sleeve:

The cover had come about after Paul McCartney came up with the album title. He took some ideas to his art dealer friend Robert Fraser, who suggested they use Blake, Haworth and Cooper to realize the concept….

---This is when he met the Beatles and designed the cover art for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He was friends with the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. He drank and smoked a lot, but didn’t touch drugs – not that he lacked the opportunity. ‘There was a particular incident when Robert Fraser and Paul McCartney came to my studio, and they’d both done LSD so they were tripping, seeing coloured lights,’ he says. ‘And Paul just kept on and on, you’ve got to do it, you’re missing a whole part of your life if you don’t. But somehow I just didn’t.’ --- Read More: image:

…Blake: “We had an original meeting with all four Beatles, Robert Fraser and Brian Epstein; most of the subsequent talking was done with Paul at his house and with John there sometimes.” McCartney’s initial idea was to stage a presentation featuring a mayor and a corporation, with a floral clock and a selection of photographs of famous faces on the wall behind The Beatles. He asked the others to list their choices for the photographs;…McCartney took the list and sketches to Peter Blake, who developed the concept further. Further names were added and others fell by the wayside. Read More:

---After that, Zoffany was desperate enough to try anything—even the colonies. Hearing there was money to be made in Lucknow, he traveled to the court of the fantastically wealthy Nawab, Asaf al-Daula. Asaf had a harem of 500 women, but never consummated his marriage—he preferred men. That subtext figures in Zoffany’s most important Lucknow painting, Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Fight. It’s in the LACMA show at one remove, via an Indian copy. The best-known version, owned by the Tate Gallery (top), was commissioned by Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India, as a colossally ungracious joke. Cockfights were as louche then as they are now, so it was a bizarro world version of Zoffany’s trademark aristocratic gatherings. Colonel Mordaunt (standing, at center left) was an upper-class twit who got on well with the Nawab. Hastings apparently felt that both were jerks. The central figure is Asaf, and it must have been Hastings’ idea to show him with an erection. Asaf is reaching for his boyfriend and chief minister Hassan Resa Khan (in the red turban). Behind them, a turbaned man embraces a Muslim catamite (in the white cap), while another man, in a red turban, has to be restrained from attacking them. As that suggests, Hastings was burning his bridges. He commissioned the painting just before leaving Lucknow and didn’t take delivery until he was back in England. Curiously, Asaf owned another version of the picture, without the erection.---- Read More:

Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough had developed the portrait painting genre as court painters, but the new riches that were being amassed in the latter stages of the eighteenth-century meant an expansion of the demand for what developed into elaborate group portraits, jam packed affairs by artist’s such as Johann Zoffany and later through pieces such as William Powell Firth and his Derby Day.

---We learn something of the nature of these concerts on the river from the notable picture which Zoffany painted in 1779-81 (R.A., 85) for his friend William Sharp, representing him and his family on board their yacht in the Thames, Fulham Church being visible in the background. This fine picture, for which the artist was paid eight hundred guineas, ...---Read More: Image:

Zoffany himself was very much influenced by the work of William Hogarth. Hogarth’s were the original “conversation pieces” . Zoffany, while deriving some inspiration from the Dutch, going as far back as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, built upon the example of Hogarth and adjusted the context and downplayed Hogarth’s sometimes severe moral narratives.  He might not have had the breadth and grandeur of Hogarth, but few excelled in this genre like Zoffany with the exception of Franz Hals.

---There were also many engravings of great art at hand in England and Hogarth considered travelling through Europe to study High Renaissance art was unnecessary. Hogarth had created a different role for himself, painting narrative series of “modern moral subjects”. The novelist and dramatist Henry Fielding called them “comic history paintings”. My Daily Art Display for today is The Marriage Settlement, the first painting of a set of six entitled Marriage à-la-mode which Hogarth painted between 1743 and 1745. It is a moralistic warning, which gives us a clear vision of what happens as a result of an ill-conceived marriage, which only took place for financial reasons and not for love.--- Read More:

On the other hand, some of these conversation pieces had an antithesis to them, above and beyond the decorative. An example is The Minuet which is reaching for a more poetic and ambiguous statement showing some influences of Watteau and his sense of dreamy gracefulness.

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Read More:Johann Zoffany, The Minuet, ca. 1780-83

Perhaps the connection with Watteau is this same sense of the theatrical world. Zoffany was a lover of the stage and was attracted to and understood the composition of theatrical groups as well as color of costumes and stage sets.

An important offshoot of the Dutch tradition was the conversation piece, a mixture of genre and portrait in which a group friends or relatives is depicted in an intimate and informal setting (Staring, De Hollanders Thuis). The Dutch bourgeois conversation piece had an aristocratic Flemish counterpart which often located the portrait group in a ballroom or garden. The Flemish conversation piece is closely allied to the French tableau de société and, through Watteau, to the fête galante. . Both the Dutch and the Flemish styles helped to shape the English conversation piece, which flourished in the eighteenth century….Several kinds of activity may take place within a single picture, especially if children and pets are represented. Having originated in Belgium and Holland in the seventeenth century, the conversation piece achieved its highest development in England between 1720 and 1810. Thereafter it fell from fashion, but its tradition remained well known, throughout the nineteenth century. Read More:

---Frith made studies from models for all the prominent figures: he found the acrobats at Drury Lane, and they started modelling for him, but were unused to the work, so he bought their clothes from them and transferred them to professional models. The general effect of the variety in dress is to establish the social hierarchy, clearly distinguishing rich from poor. The Derby was a venue similar to the Great Exhibition, where, it was thought, all ranks could mingle in apparent equality. Frith's types are carefully selected to convey this impression. --- Read More:

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