Spectacular: Johann Zoffany's "The Tribuna of the Uffizi" (1772-7)
The conversation piece, the subject of an intriguing exhibition at the Queen's Gallery (until 14 February 2010), is a peculiarly British sub-genre of a sub-genre. Traditionally, it shows an informal gathering of friends or family in a domestic or landscape setting. It is thus a spin-off first of formal portraiture and then of group portraiture and is a form that came to prominence in the 18th century when practised by Hogarth, Zoffany and Gainsborough. Quite why it should so appeal to our national taste is not entirely clear but there was obviously something in the British monarchy's psyche and ton that made them want to pretend that, for all their wealth and position, they were really middle class at heart. Some are so charming that the viewer is even taken in.
While all the pictures in this chronological survey are drawn from the Royal Collection not all are proper conversation pieces. There is enough of the real thing, however, to give an idea of how the genre evolved. And like most British art its origins lay abroad, in this case in the Dutch interior scenes of De Hooch, Teniers et al.
It was a Dutchman, Hendrick Pot, who painted the earliest work in this show, a stilted triple portrait of Charles I, Henrietta Maria and the infant Prince of Wales (1632). It shows the Royal couple at opposite ends of a long table on which the future Charles II sits and almost topples off.
The king himself, as if to prove how fatally unwilling he was ever to lessen the authority of the crown, stands stiffly, hand on sword, toe pointing outwards and stares the artist down. It makes for an uncomfortable grouping in which the idea of any conversation actually taking place is inconceivable. Poor Pot must have been every bit as uncomfortable while painting it.
As time progressed both artists and subjects grew more accustomed to the idea of being shown at their ease. This is a very uneven exhibition but even the poor pictures — of which there are many — have their own delights. Marcellus Laroon's A Dinner Party (1725), for example, is a curious mixture of bombast, naivety and caricature but it is packed with incident and painted with brio. He captures the flavour of a lively meal even while failing to capture the nuances of physiognomy.
Where this exhibition comes into its own is with Zoffany, sometimes known as "the one-eyed German" because of his squint. He may have had only one good eye but it was an eye for pattern and colour. His paintings of Queen Charlotte at her dressing table with her sons or in a park with her children and brothers are packed tight with detail and the shimmer of silks or the nap of fustian are immaculately rendered. They are lovely displays of tender maternity and perfectly capture George III's wife not as a queen but as simply "Mrs King".