The sitters can probably be identified as (from left to right): Charles Crokatt (died 1769), William Keable (?1714-74) playing the flute, and Peter Darnell Muilman (c.1725 -1766). The two seated figures to the left are posed in a relaxed way in the spirit of a conversation piece, whereas the young man standing on the right, slightly set apart from his comrades, is characterised by an air of distinction. Since it is believed that the picture was commissioned by his father, Henry Muilman, it would seem appropriate that Peter Darnell Muilman is the most prominent figure.
Peter Darnell Muilman's father, Henry, (died 1772) was a prosperous merchant who had emigrated with his brother Peter (1713-90) from Amsterdam. Both brothers appear to have retired to the Essex countryside in 1749. It seems likely that Henry Muilman commissioned the picture from Gainsborough to include both his son and his future son-in-law, for his daughter Anna married Charles Crokatt on 16 April 1752. The painting was presumably intended as a celebration of the engagement and therefore as a record of the new dynastic links forged between the two families.
Charles Crokatt was also the son of a wealthy merchant, James Crokatt (died 1776) from Charleston, South Carolina, who in 1749 acquired a fine estate in Essex, Luxborough Hall near Chigwell. The property was located not far from the newly acquired Muilman estate at Dagenhams, Romford. It is not entirely clear whether Charles Crokatt and his family stayed at Luxborough for long: he committed suicide in 1769 and in his will he describes himself as of St Botolph's Bishopsgate, London. It is tempting to assume that the Crokatt family was associated with the business interests of the Muilmans since they were all successful immigrant merchants. However, the connection between the two families may have been solely a marital one.
In the centre is William Keable who was a moderately successful painter of portraits and small conversation-pieces. Keable was an amateur musician as well as a painter and his role as the flautist implies that he served Crokatt and Muilman as a music master and perhaps also taught them drawing. Keable may have become acquainted with Gainsborough through artistic circles in Suffolk, or musical ones, such as the Ipswich Musical Club, since Gainsborough was himself a talented amateur musician. A label on the back of the stretcher states that Keable painted the figures and Gainsborough the landscape, although this view has long been disregarded by most Gainsborough scholars.
In many of his early portraits, Gainsborough fused portraiture and landscape painting, the two main strands of his career, often setting the figures in a typical East Anglian landscape, as in this portrait. The composition is in parts imitative of other artists: the heads and hands of the sitters are modelled very much in the style of Francis Hayman (1708-76), while the landscape reveals the influence of Dutch landscape artists of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, this highly accomplished portrait represents Gainsborough's early efforts to meld the graceful Rococo nonchalance of the conversation piece with the gentle, atmospheric qualities of his native Suffolk landscape.
E.K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, London 1958, no. 747, reproduced pl.19
John Hayes, Thomas Gainsborough, exhibition Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara, Italy, 1998, no.3, reproduced in colour
Catalogue entry by Hugh Belsey in In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad 1740-1860, exhibition Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, 1999, no.1, reproduced in colour