One of the most important and innovative branches of Hogarth’s art were conversation pieces (small-scale group portraits). Some of the most complex and celebrated are included here.

One of the most important and innovative branches of Hogarth’s art is the conversation piece, which typically depicts groups of figures who have come together for some kind of convivial or family occasion. In such small-scale pictures, whose settings range from grandly appointed ballrooms to fictionalised country estates, men, women and children act and interact according to the fashionable contemporary ideal of politeness, a term associated with the virtues of a restrained, polished and tolerant sociability. Hogarth depicts the art of politeness being practised and demonstrated through particular kinds of social ritual: the drinking of tea; the playing of genteel card-games; the appreciation of art, literature, and private forms of theatre; and, finally and most importantly of all, the ritual of conversation itself.

At the same time as they promote the benefits of polite sociability, Hogarth’s conversation pieces often extol the loyalties and virtues of family life. Painted in an era that saw the emergence of a modern ideal of the companionable family, works such as The Cholmondely Family offer complex pictorial meditations on the emotions, memories and experiences that bind together the individual members of a family, and that can sometimes tear them tragically apart.

Works on display in this room

William Hogarth
The Cholmondely Family  1732

William Hogarth The Cholmondely Family 1732

William Hogarth
The Cholmondely Family 1732
Oil on Canvas

© Private Collection

This elaborate conversation piece was commissioned by George Cholmondeley, Viscount Malpas, who is seated in the centre. The painting seems to be a memorial to his wife Mary, pictured on the far left of the canvas. She had died of consumption in France the previous year. The posthumous inclusion of individuals, their status pictorially indicated by such symbols as the putti seen hovering over Mary’s head, was not unusual in group portraits of this period. Within the composition Hogarth dramatises the different states of adulthood and childhood by juxtaposing the reflective mood of the adults with the playfulness and innocence of Malpas’s young sons on the right.

William Hogarth
Woodes Rogers and his Family 1729
Oil on canvas
355 x 455 mm
National Maritime Museum, London

This early example of Hogarth’s group portraiture is of a more tentative character than his later conversation pieces, suggesting that the artist was still developing the format that would soon bring him so much commercial and critical success. The depicted family is that of the famous British sailor and colonial administrator, Captain Woodes Rogers, recently restored to the Governorship of the Bahamas after having been controversially relieved of this post earlier in the decade. The globe, positioned to Woodes Rogers’ left, signifies his circumnavigation of the world during the War of Spanish Succession (1702–13).

William Hogarth
An Assembly at Wanstead House 1728-1731
Oil on canvas
647 x 762 mm
Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

This painting was commissioned by Richard Child, Viscount Castlemaine. He had spent part of his inheritance on a lavishly decorated house at Wanstead designed by the Palladian architect Colen Campbell. Hogarth’s picture is set in the long ballroom at Wanstead and flaunts its luxuriousness – the upper half of the picture space is crowded with tapestries, sculptures, paintings, furniture and extensive marble-work. The lower half of the painting, meanwhile, is populated by twenty-five figures who have gathered to play cards and drink tea in the late afternoon. Castlemaine and his immediate family are prominently positioned in the foreground.

William Hogarth
A Midnight Modern Conversation c.1732
Oil on canvas
762 x 1638 mm
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In this work the artist humorously satirises the activities that took place in the drinking clubs that had sprung up in early eighteenth-century London to cater to a male clientele drawn from the middle and professional classes – clubs that we know Hogarth himself regularly frequented in this period. Rather than sipping tea or even, as in some conversation pieces of the period, politely drinking wine, Hogarth’s male protagonists, gathered around a table dominated by a huge punch bowl, are pictured in a state of extreme inebriation.

William Hogarth
The Jones Family circa 1730
Oil on canvas
720 x 918 mm
Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Hogarth’s picture was commissioned by Squire Robert Jones of Fonmon Castle in Wales and portrays Jones, his three siblings and his widowed mother as if pausing on a walk through their country estate. The painting appears to represent a rural idyll. However, Hogarth sets up a humorous contrast between the genteel poses and behaviour of the Jones family and the indecorous activities of the ‘low’ rural figures who occupy the further reaches of the landscape. These include the working and resting haymakers in the distant field and, most provocatively of all, the couple who are shown having sex on a hayrick.

William Hogarth
Conversation Piece (Portrait of Sir Andrew Fountaine with other Men and Women) c.1730-1735
Oil on canvas
476 x 584 mm
Philadelphia Museum of Art. The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

Hogarth’s conversation pieces were designed to stimulate as well as to depict conversation, and this painting has attracted an unusual degree of debate concerning its participants, history and meanings. This is in part because the work originally included a fourth male figure, painted out sometime before 1817, who sat in front of the two women on the left. Although the identity of the sitters is uncertain, we know that the painting was commissioned by the leading aristocratic collector and connoisseur Sir Andrew Fountaine, who is probably the figure standing to the right with his hand tucked into his jacket.

William Hogarth
A Performance of ‘The Indian Emperor or The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards’ 1732-1735
Oil on canvas
1310 x 1467 mm
Private collection

This spectacular picture commemorates a private children’s performance of Dryden’s play The Indian Emperor that had taken place in the spring of 1732 in the house of John Conduitt, Master of the Mint. The Conduitts’ only child, Catherine, is depicted on the far right of the stage, wearing black. The audience includes the royal prince, William, Duke of Cumberland, and his two sisters Mary and Louisa, who are watching and discussing the play from what seems to be an improvised box. Given the viewpoint, Hogarth makes it seem as if we, the spectators of his picture, are actually part of the audience he depicts.

William Hogarth
The Strode Family 1738

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

View the main page for this artwork

In this beautifully painted canvas Hogarth pares down the indoor conversation piece to its pictorial essentials: rather than the choreographed crowds and packed interiors of the Wanstead Assembly, we are presented with five elegantly interrelated figures sitting in a refined but uncluttered interior. The most prominent figure, seated at the left of the table, is Hogarth’s patron, William Strode, who gestures to his old tutor, Dr Arthur Smyth, to join him and his family for tea and conversation.

William Hogarth
The Western Family 1738
Oil on canvas
718 x 838 mm
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

This picture, which offers a perfect counterpart to The Strode Family, in its handling of figures, themes and paint, depicts various members of the Western family socialising with the clergyman – probably Archdeacon C. Plumptre – shown sitting on the right. As in the Strode painting, Hogarth captures the moment just before this group of individuals gather together for tea. The artist’s patron, Thomas Western is pictured carrying a trophy of the hunt and his hat suggests he has just come in from outside. His wife Anne Callis, who is placed directly under the coat of arms that surmounts a distant doorway, stands expectantly at his side.

William Hogarth
The Hervey Conversation Piece c.1740
Oil on canvas
1016 x 1270 mm
Ickworth, The Bristol Collection (The National Trust)

This enigmatic and humorous group portrait was commissioned by John, Baron Hervey of Ickworth, seemingly to celebrate the political and personal companionship enjoyed by a small but highly influential coterie of Whig aristocrats, politicians and courtiers. Hervey is shown gesturing to an architectural drawing held by Henry Fox, Surveyor-General of the King’s Works. The clergyman on the left is possibly Dr John Theophilius Desaguliers, an influential physicist and Freemason. He trains a telescope on the church tower in the far distance. Meanwhile his chair – possibly nudged backwards by Fox’s brother, Stephen - tilts precariously towards the river flowing nearby.

William Hogarth
Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin c.1745
Oil on canvas
685 x 889 mm
National Maritime Museum, London

This picture celebrates the kinds of masculine conviviality that Hogarth had satirised in A Midnight Modern Conversation. Lord George Graham was an aristocratic naval officer who, at the age of twenty-five, was granted command of his own ship and made Governor of Newfoundland. This painting is set in the captain’s elegantly appointed cabin and shows him relaxing at his table with a group of male companions. As so often, Hogarth integrates dogs into his narrative: one howls along with the music, while another, standing on a chair and encased in Graham’s wig, is playfully dressed up to sing from a sheet of music.