Family portraits & Conversation Pieces
(prints & paintings - 1/3)
The Graham Children (1742)
'At once an ambitious group portrait, painted life-size, and a complex emblem on art, innocence and the transience of childhood, The Graham Children is one of Hogarth's most accomplished works. Commissioned by Daniel Graham, apothecary to the royal household and the Chelsea Hospital, the portrait brings together his three children by his second marriage to Mary Crisp - the infant Thomas, the seven-year-old Henrietta Catherine, and Richard Robert, then aged eight - together with his wife's daughter from a previous marriage, Elizabeth, who is dressed in blue. The informality of the work, evident also in the contemporaneous McKinnon Children (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) provides a striking contrast to the stiffness and restraint typical of depictions of children at this period, and looks forward to the greater freedom found in family pieces by later Georgian artists such as Reynolds, Zoffany and Lawrence.
The emblematic content of the painting represents childhood as a fragile interlude protected from the hardships of the outside world, here represented by the predatory cat greedily stalking the caged goldfinch. Oblivious to the cat's evil intent, Richard Robert plays a serinette decorated with a scene of Orpheus, the first artist, charming the beasts with his music. He smiles at the finch's agitated singing, unaware that fear of attack has roused the bird. Between her fingers Elizabeth holds two cherries, the 'fruit of paradise' associated with childhood, while behind her a clock is decorated with a figure of Cupid, who holds Time's scythe to recall the ultimate triumph of Time over Love. The poignant message of the work, ultimately sombre in its reminder of mortality, derives from the recent death of the Grahams' young son Thomas, whom Hogarth here represents in a posthumous portrait.'
The Edwards Family (1733-34)
Ashley Cowper with his Wife and Daughter (1731)
The Cholmondeley Family (1732)
'Commissoned by George Cholmondeley, Viscount Malpas (later third Earl of CholmondeIy), this curious conversation piece is at once stiffly solemn and profoundly subversive.
Cholmondeley, shown wearing the Order of the Bath, is seated in front of his brother james, a colonel in the 34th Regiment of Foot, and gazes affectionately towards his wife Mary and their youngest son Frederick. The daughter of Sir Robert Walpole, Mary had died of consumption in France the previous year and her body had been lost in a shipwreck whilst being returned home in April 1732. The commemorative function of the family group, together with the need for Hogarth to rely on portraits for his posthumous likeness of Mary, explain the stiffness of her pose and the presence of the putti hovering above her head. The family arms, positioned over Lord Malpas, add to the impression of gravitas which suffuses the left-hand side of the image. The contrast with events on the other side of the room could scarcely be more vivid. Here, the two eldest Cholmondeley boys, George and Robert, engage in their mischief apparently oblivious to the niceties of group portraiture. As George rushes forward, Robert vigorously kicks a pile of books from a low table. The viewer, aware of these antics in a way that the other sitters appear not to be, anticipates the books' fall and the disruption it will cause. In such a way, the solemnity of the image is punctured and a finally optimistic sense of the continuity of life, embodied in the unselfconscious innocence of the children, tempers the restrained, commemorative tone of this remarkable work.
In 1734, Hogarth again portrayed Cholmondeley, in a collaborative project with the sporting artist John Wooton, in which he was paid five guineas a head to paint in the features of various figures, including Frederick, Prince of Wales.'
The Woodes Rogers Family (1729)
' The Woodes Rogers Family Of 1729 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich) has always been regarded as one of the weakest, and certainly the mise-en-scène is unconvincing, but it contains an unforgettable contrast between the stuffy and overdressed figure of the lady of the family and the direct, almost insolent, figure of the maidservant behind her. The satirist frequently seems to be on the point of breaking through the surface in these conversations, and children and animals are frequently shown as potentially subversive of the formality of the grouping, as they are in the comic pictures.'
The Wollaston Family (1730)
'One can only concur, and although one would not think of The Wollaston Family as the liveliest of Hogarth's conversation pictures, it does have a vivacity which his chief rivals, named by Vertue as Charles Philips (1708-47) and Gawen Hamilton (c. 1697-1737), could rarely achieve. Hogarth's main aim seems to have been to avoid the woodenness of his rivals' work, and here he was aided not only by his superior powers of observation but by a brilliant and luminous handling of paint. It is the free touch of impasto applied confidently to the projecting surfaces and to the white drapes which creates the sense of flickering movement; but one should not underestimate the artful way in which Hogarth has disposed a rather large party, by separating them into two groups linked only by the figure of Mr Wollaston himself. In effect, by dividing up the numbers Hogarth has avoided the sense of a long line of heads which so often mars his contemporaries' work, and he has unified the groups within themselves by placing them around a card game at one table and the pouring of tea at the other. The two groups are arranged as genre scenes in which the family is disposed with naturalness and a hint of drama, as the players discuss their cards. The moment we are observing is captured within a sequence of events, and the order the painter has established is about to be broken: Mr Wollaston is apparently explaining the progress of the cards to the ladies, but he is about to change his place; a chair is being brought to the card table for one of the standing gentlemen to sit down and thus destroy the pyramidal grouping. There are also hints of amorous entanglements, in the couple by the fireplace and the two ladies playing cards, with the effect that the painting begins to be a subject picture in its own right.'
Neil McWilliam, David Bindman