This unusually informal group portrait was painted at the request of Nathaniel Oldham by his friend Joseph Highmore to commemorate a dinner party at his home in Ealing, then in the country to West of London, and now a suburb. Oldham – standing on the left – was so late in returning home from hunting that the friends he’d invited to dinner had eaten without him. The painting shows them after their meal, finishing off the evening with their pipes, and a bowl of hot punch, which in the 18th century was called ‘negus’ and was made of hot port, sugar, lemon and spices.
Oldham is so recently returned that he’s still wearing his outside coat and hat. His guests are, next to him, a neighbouring farmer who has a characteristically weather-beaten, reddened face, and wears his hair naturally rather than wearing a wig. On the far right, seen in profile, is a local schoolmaster who is more formally dressed and stern-looking in a black coat and a wig. And peering out from behind him is the artist himself. He’s dressed in the working clothes of a painter with a loose smock and a soft velvet cap or turban. Nathaniel Oldham had inherited wealth and so spent his time in such gentlemanly pursuits as hunting and collecting paintings and curiosities.
Joseph Highmore was among the artists that his contemporary William Hogarth persuaded to donate paintings to Thomas Coram’s foundling hospital in London in order to raise funds for its work.