Sunday, December 07, 2008

Plus ça change...

I'd only called in at the National Portrait Gallery to use the loo. After choosing Christmas cards in St Martin's crypt I had an hour or so before I was due to collect tickets , in Covent Garden. In the downstairs hall, though I spotted one or two people waiting for the doors of the lecture room to open. ‘Conversation Pieces in Georgian Society’ sounded promising.

They turned out to be a type of eighteenth century paintings the speaker had been researching. Slide examples showed well-dressed families in elaborate costumes dealing cards, drinking tea, playing the harpsichord, etc. Sometimes they were in rural settings. These paintings, she said, were not so much about reality as about aspiration: 'exemplars' rather than ‘examples’ of polite society at the time. The pictures were as much about costumes, leisure pursuits and furniture as about the people, she argued and their function was much like that of today’s Sunday supplements – a kind of showing off of the aspired-to ideal. They were very keen on all that - there were best-selling books telling men how to stand in a drawing room. The one in the picture shows the:

‘relatively bare settings of Arthur Devis, which emphasized restrained good taste, in contrast to William Hogarth's more lavish scenes of refined consumption…Such settings were not intended to represent specific spaces. Rather, like the interiors of Hogarth's modern moral subject paintings, they were to be understood as signifiers of abstract virtues—‘

Hmmm. I'd certainly recommend these free talks. There was a big screen for the slides and a steeply raked auditorium with comfortable seats. Well worth dropping in for. I can recommend the loos, too.

More about the speaker and her subject:

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