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….
…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:http://www.beatlesbible.com/1967/03/30/cover-shoot-for-sgt-pepper/
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.
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.
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.
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:http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/eliot/hw/7.html