The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life (3 stars)

The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life


‘One or two paintings in this exhibition may be satirical; the majority … celebrate the prosperity, elegance and pleasure of fashionable life in Holland and England.’

Leaving aside the £5.50 entrance fee to cop a glimpse of a des-res infrequently occupied by a pensioner who costs the taxpayer even more than a Westminster MP’s expenses claims, one can’t help but wonder whose conversation this fetishisation of high-rollers who moved and shook between the reigns of Charles 1 and Queen Victoria actually is.

With so many pictures side-by-side, this understandably well-turned-out affair becomes a period equivalent of a society spread in ghastly toffs rag, Tatler. In the best of these, such as ‘The Tribune of the Office’ and ‘The Academicians of the Royal Academy’, both by Dutch lick-spittle Johan Zoffany, a rogue’s gallery of fops, dandies, royalty major and minor, the finest minds of their generation, periwigged preeners, coteries of courtesans, debs, celebs and assorted hangers-on, are all caught either in repose or striking a pose, hanging-out, gassing, schmoozing, ligging and no doubt trying in vain to get the well-heeled leg over as one was wont to do.

Best of all is the way in which other paintings hang on the walls above the gathered saloneers like must-have pin-up status symbols to impress the guests. As a document of high living, it all looks like a terribly marvellous party, but I guess, as is the way of these things, you had to be there.

The Queen’s Gallery, Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, until Sun 20 Sep

The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life

  • 3 stars

Exhibition exploring the tradition of 'conversation piece' painting, and high-society style and manners, from the time of Charles I to the reign of Queen Victoria. Last admission 5pm.

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