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This is an example of the new portrait format – the ‘conversation piece’ – which Hogarth pioneered in the 1730s.
The modesty, small scale and informality of conversation pieces are often seen as reflecting the values of a growing, Anglican middle-class. However, the main sitter, on the left, is probably the aristocratic Duchess of Buckingham, an illegitimate child of the Catholic king James II and a staunch supporter of the exiled Stuart court. Here, she is distracted by a little dog running away with her fan. Is the effect sympathetic or satirical?

March 2011