A conversation piece is an informal group portrait popular in the eighteenth century, small in scale and showing people – often families, sometimes groups of friends – in domestic interior or garden settings

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  • Philip Mercier, 'The Schutz Family and their Friends on a Terrace' 1725
    Philip Mercier
    The Schutz Family and their Friends on a Terrace 1725
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1022 x 1257 mm
    Purchased 1980
  • William Hogarth, 'The Strode Family' circa 1738
    William Hogarth
    The Strode Family circa 1738
    Oil on canvas
    frame: 1126 x 1175 x 98 mm
    support: 870 x 915 mm
    Bequeathed by Rev. William Finch 1880
  • Johan Zoffany, 'Three Daughters of John, 3rd Earl of Bute' circa 1763-4
    Johan Zoffany
    Three Daughters of John, 3rd Earl of Bute circa 1763-4
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1012 x 1265 mm
    frame: 1268 x 1531 x 70 mm
    Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax with additional payment (General Funds) made with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and Tate Members 2002

Introduction to conversation piece

Sitters are shown interacting with each other or with pets, taking tea or playing games. Conversation pieces were very different from the more formal court or grand style portrait.

They seem to have evolved early in the eighteenth century to meet the demand from the new middle classes, although also gained aristocratic and royal patrons. Probably introduced in Britain by Philip Mercier about 1725 and popularised by William Hogarth, then Arthur Devis, this style of portrait became highly fashionable with the artist Johan Zoffany.

Further resource

In this short film below, historian Zareer Masani discusses the conversation piece Johan Zoffany’s, Colonel Mordaunt’s cock match, 1784–6. He explains the importance of this painting due to its depiction of informal and relaxed cultural mixing between Indians and Europeans.

A very exciting conversation piece for its time.
Historian Zareer Masani