Illustrated companion

This is a fine example of the 'conversation portraits' or 'conversation pieces', as they are also known, that were the basis of Hogarth's practice in the early part of his career. Hogarth started out as an engraver, but his growing ambition, as he later recounted, made him 'turn his head to painting portrait figures from 10 to 15 inches high, often in subjects of conversation. It had some novelty ... it gave more scope to fancy [imagination] than the common portrait.' The 'scope to fancy' given by the conversation piece enabled Hogarth to develop it into the record of contemporary life combined with social comment or satire, that first appears in 'The Beggar's Opera' [Tate Gallery N02437], and later in paintings such as 'The Gate of Calais' [Tate Gallery N01464] and the multi-picture series of 'modern moral subjects'. However, an ordinary conversation piece can also provide a vivid evocation of the life of its time, as does 'The Strode Family'. The picture is said to be a breakfast scene although no food is in evidence. Tea is being taken and the butler is filling the tea-pot with hot water. The man on the left holding a book is a clergyman, Dr Arthur Smyth, who later became Archbishop of Dublin. Next to him is William Strode whose wealthy family were traders in the East. Opposite, is his wife Anne and the standing man is Colonel Strode, another member of the family. William Strode and Dr Smyth had done at least part of the Grand Tour together a few years earlier: they are known to have been in Venice at the same time. The pictures on the wall are the sort of thing that a wealthy young Englishman would bring back from Italy: the small one on the left is in fact a Venetian scene, perhaps by Francesco Guardi and the large one above is a landscape in the manner of Salvator Rosa. The pug dog belonged to the Colonel which is presumably why the Colonel is pointing at him with his gold topped cane. The other dog is William Strode's. On the floor in the foreground is the lockable tea caddy essential for what was then a very expensive commodity.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.26