This picture is among the most original works to have been produced in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, maintaining the intimate atmosphere of a small conversation piece in a life-size group portrait. Highmore painted it at the request of Nathaniel Oldham to commemorate a dinner party held at Oldham's home, to which he had arrived belatedly. According to the author and antiquarian, John Thomas Smith (1766-1833), who heard the story from his father, who had at one time owned the picture and was himself the godson of Mr Oldham:
Mr Oldham had invited three friends to dine with him at his house at Ealing; but being a famous and constant sportsman he did not arrive till they had dined; and then he found them so comfortably seated with their pipes over a bowl of negus, that he commissioned Highmore to paint the scene and desired that he might be introduced in it just as he then appeared (quoted in Einberg and Egerton 1988, p.47).
Mr Oldham, who has just arrived, stands at the extreme left of the painting, his arms folded over the top of the chair, his tricorn hat still on his head. He wears an expression of barely concealed amusement. In the centre, seated with his pipe and glass of negus, is a large, red-faced man, identified by Smith as a neighbouring farmer. At the right, dressed in black, is a local schoolmaster, his glassy eyed stare and slumped posture indicating that he has supped well. Between these two figures, peering out over his glass, is the third guest, Joseph Highmore, whom Oldham commissioned to paint the scene.
Nathaniel Oldham (active 1728-47), who had served with the British army in India, inherited a fortune, which enabled him to indulge his love of field sports and fine art. Little is known of his time in Ealing other than that he lived at Ealing House between 1728 and 1735, which was possibly the setting for this memorable dinner party. He and Highmore were close friends, one contemporary describing them as 'very intimate' (Einberg and Egerton, p.48). Highmore also painted a full-length portrait of Oldham as a huntsman, although this picture is now known only from an engraving.
Oldham, who was extravagant in his tastes, eventually fell into debt, apparently evading his creditors by seeking sanctuary in the court of St James. He was, however, eventually bankrupted and was imprisoned for debt in the King's Bench prison, where he is said to have died.
Partly because of the unusual format of this picture, and the way in which it differs from Highmore's other works, Mr Oldham and his Guests is difficult to date precisely on stylistic grounds. Although Highmore's exact age in the picture cannot be determined, he would appear to be around fifty years old. If that were so, the picture would have been painted in the early 1740s. The picture was almost certainly painted before 1747 when Oldham's collection of prints, books and drawings were auctioned from his address at Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, either following or anticipating his bankruptcy.
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth. British Painters born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery1988, pp.47-50, reproduced in colour