The Clavey family by Arthur Devis is the fourth example of the conversation piece to be acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, the others being the large conversations by Jacopo Amigoni and George Romney and the small companion pictures of the Drake-Brockman family by an anonymous artist.
Two classifications which have often confused the layman in the terminology of English art history are ‘history painting’ and ‘conversation piece’, for the same reason that neither conforms to modern usage. Thus ‘history painting’ actually excludes what we understand by history from its subject matter, and conversation in the conversation piece is also conspicuous by its absence. The explanation in both cases is that the terms came into English from defunct Latin usages via the Italian.
Just as ‘history’ in the phrase ‘history painting’ comes from the Latin historia in its primary meaning of narrative via the Italian istoria or storia, so ‘conversation’ in the ‘conversation piece’ comes from the Latin conversatio meaning a familiar gathering or meeting of intimates for recreation, through the Italian conversazione. For the Renaissance the painting of istoria meant epic narrative painting taking its subjects from the elevated sources of the Bible and classical antiquity, especially classical mythology. The painting of historical subjects in the modern sense was restricted to a lower category, lower because it was documentary, not ideal. This distinction was not broken down until late in the 18th century.
‘Conversation’ in the context of 18th century art meant simply a party, and a conversation piece means a painting of a party, i.e. a family party or a party of friends. The mode quickly acquired a distinctive style, so that portraits of a single figure are sometimes described as being painted in the manner of a conversation, that is, with an emphasis on relaxation and recreation. But the 18th century would never have described even an informal portrait of two persons as a conversation.
The new mode arose in step with the rise of informality at the end of the 17th century, a European symbol of which was the relaxation of etiquette among aristocratic social circles in France in the closing years of the reign of Louis XIV.
Apart from Arthur Devis, who became the conversation painter par excellence, the three masters best known for their conversations before the age of Zoffany are Pietro Longhi in Italy, Hogarth in England and Cornelis Troost in Holland. Longhi was born the same year as Hogarth, Cornelis Troost five years later, in 1702.
Because Devis, born in 1708, was the youngest, he was able to profit from the vogue that Hogarth and his contemporaries had helped to establish, and on which they had already stamped a distinctive character. The traits they had introduced admirably suited his temperament and his talents, and by concentrating on the conversation piece as his speciality he has become a classic example of a minor artist achieving an international reputation. To him is also largely due the credit for the conversation piece being regarded on the continent as a distinctively English excellence, that is, a category in which the English excelled.
Mario Praz in a memorable passage has noted the special place of the English school:
Barely more animated are the English conversation pieces where, if the adults have the stylised hauteur of fish in brilliant livery, the little ones of the family, arrested by the painter in playful or light-hearted moments, suggest the image of darting minnows among the motionless, intent, mature fish. And these aquariums are lighted by the eighteenth century sun which seemed fated never to set.
How perfectly these words fit the companion pictures of the Drake-Brockman family in our gallery!
Most fashionable portrait painters in England after about 1750 tried their hand at the mode, headed by Sir Joshua Reynolds. But the conversations by Reynolds are, with the exception of some caricature paintings, always large, like the famous paintings of members of the Dilettanti Society, and none is in the distinctively English style. This is, in the main, true of those portrait painters who upheld the grand manner, so that they invite comparison with contemporary artists who painted large conversations on the continent.
Peculiar to the distinctively English category taken up by Devis but not Reynolds, is the stress on the proprietary, already to be noted in the conversations by Hogarth. Thus Hogarth depicts a party of children given by the Master of the Mint in his drawing room; a tea party given by a squire’s wife in her parlour; a family gathering presided over by a nobleman in his library; and even, in the portrait group of Lord George Graham and his friends, a drinking party given by a sea captain in his cabin. This in marked contrast with the conversation pieces of Longhi and Cornelis Troost, where the setting is contemporary but generalised, like a Victorian photographer’s studio with its pedestals and aspidistra among the accessories.
The Gallery has been wise to wait until it could secure a really fine example of Arthur Devis’s work, for minor examples have come not infrequently into the market whereas the best ones have hitherto been pre-empted by the advisers of Mr Paul Mellon. Devis perfected the miniature style, the perfect foil to the baroque large conversations of Reynolds. Stubbs and Zoffany also painted small conversations, those of Stubbs being amongst the greatest masterpieces of 18th century English art. But their figures are never as tiny as those of Devis. Devis certainly inherited the miniature scale from his predecessors, including Hogarth, but whereas Hogarth’s figures grew larger until they cross the boundary between the small and large conversation pieces, those of Devis retain their doll-like scale. There is also something of the precision and refinement of the doll’s house about his interiors, and even his landscapes resemble scenery for a toy-theatre.
He also pushes the cult of the linear silhouette further than any other practitioner, and he is a master in exploiting the vacant interval. This Chinese tact of disposition and spacing reveals an exquisite sensibility for surface arrangement only rivalled by Stubbs. Add to this a love of jewel-like touches of colour enlivening his cool schemes, and Devis stands out as a painter of exquisite refinement, a master whose observant eye for trait and pose in man, woman and child and for light, atmosphere, grass and foliage in nature enabled him to create a world of the imagination while holding up the mirror to society and its proprietary environment of country house and landscape garden.
The Clavey party is shown at the home of the head of the family in Hampstead. The spot chosen is a corner of his landscape garden which commands a view of Hampstead Heath, still identifiable today. The party consists of three adults and three children. Each is shown in a relaxed attitude. The youngest children have been picking flowers, and their mother has made a bouquet out of their gifts. Behind her a young gentleman proffers a bunch of grapes. Both her brother and brother-in-law have been suggested as the subject.
The son and heir holds out some writing, possibly a letter, before his father. Perhaps my earlier statement that the conversation piece never depicts conversation in its modern sense of talking should be modified. Neither mouth, however, is open, still less in movement.
The silhouette of the figures positively invites the scissors. At first sight the coulisse trees have the flatness of stage scenery. Everything is beautifully controlled and arranged. But the delicate contrivance of the surface pattern is also three dimensional. Note how positively the head of the family projects his thin, fragile legs into space, and how the trees mark the stages of recession with the utmost clarity. In the puppet-like articulation of the limbs and gestures there is something deliciously ingenuous, even naive; at the same time the landscape is astonishingly true to nature in its statement of golden haze, limpid light and fresh foliage.
Charles Clavey (1714–82) of Frome, Somerset and Hampstead, was Master of the Worshipful Company of Masons in 1756, and Common Councilman of Farringdon Ward Without, in the City of London. He was Chairman of Livery in Common Hall in February, 1769. His wife Martha, and her brother, were the children of Arthur Bettesworth, of Midhurst, a member of the Stationers Company and a publisher in partnership with his son-in-law Charles Hitch in Paternoster Row. Charles Clavey (1743–85) the elder son in the picture, married Sarah, daughter of Dr Thomas Cotton of Pendrip, Gloucestershire and Northlaw, Herts. The younger son, Thomas Bettesworth Clavey, who was born in 1748 died young and the daughter, Patty Maria, born in 1751, lived until 1811 and died unmarried.
These connections are of more than superficial interest. They show the characteristic interlocking of the country gentry, the professions and the merchant classes by marriage and business interests at a time when England was rapidly rising in wealth and commercial importance. Charles Clavey is not, first and foremost, Common Councilman of Farringdon Ward Without (the signed picture is dated 1754), but Charles Clavey, Esquire, of Frome, Somerset and Hampstead, Middlesex. These territorial designations are the certificate of their rank as gentry. Their ease and assurance proclaim a society of wealth and rank on which, in Mario Praz’s memorable words, ‘the eighteenth century sun seemed fated never to set’. Indeed for this class it was then a rising sun.
Today the families descended from this favoured society are being forced to sell their pictures. The Clavey family passed first into the possession of Mrs John Griffith, the daughter of Charles Clavey Junior in the picture, and was held in the Griffith family until recently, for it belonged to H. E. Griffith in 1933 and Mrs Edward Griffith in 1966. In 1975 it was in the collection of R. Graham, Esquire.
Both the elder boy and the girl of 6 in the picture lived to read about the voyages of Captain Cook and the first settlements in Australia. They belong to the class which provided the first governors and the official ruling, professional and capitalist élite of the new colonies. In choosing to be depicted as lovers of the county and country life, and in informal and relaxed poses without pomp of servants or the robes and trappings of their civic positions, they have made themselves accessible and likeable in a country and an age which has still preserved many of their values. The Gallery is to be congratulated on an acquisition which fills a major gap in the 18th century collection and can be enjoyed both for artistic and historical reasons.
Joseph Burke, Herald Professor of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne (in 1977).
I am indebted to Leger Galleries Ltd, London for providing me with full information about the subjects and the provenance of the picture.
The literature of the conversation piece is very extensive, but mention may be made of Ralph Edwards, Early Conversation Pieces from the Middle Ages to about 1730, 1954, and the charming and appreciative study by Sacheveral Sitwell, Conversation Pieces, 1936. Rose Harris contributed an informative introduction to The Conversation Piece in England, The Iveagh Bequest, 1965. The most recent monograph is M. Praz, Conversation Pieces (English translation), 1971.
I have discussed the sources of the conversation piece in 17th century Dutch, Flemish and French art in Volume IX of The Oxford History of English Art (see under ‘conversation piece’ in the index), 1976.
For conversatio meaning a manner of living, behaviour in classical and medieval Latin, including conversatio mortalium used by C. Cornelius Tacitus in the sense of familiar association, and for conversazione meaning a party or reception with some form of entertainment in Renaissance and baroque Italy, the philological sources are too vast to be summarised, but examples are given in all standard classical and mediaeval Latin dictionaries. The word is sometimes used in this sense today in invitations by institutions and societies, but appears to be dying out.
For articles on the other conversation pieces in the Gallery see: Annual Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. II, ‘Romney’s “Leigh Family” (1768), A Link Between the Conversation piece and the Neo-Classical portrait group’, by Joseph Burke.