Unlike an ordinary portrait, a “conversation piece” depicts a high-society gathering where family or friends indulge in fashionable pursuits. In this entertaining exhibition, however, these stylised paintings often tell an underlying story too.

In 1632 the Netherlandish artist Hendrick Pot painted Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria with their baby son, the future Charles II. But no sense of togetherness, let alone affection, can be detected in this disconcerting picture. A wide table separates Charles at the right from Henrietta and their child. All three figures stare out at us, as if isolated. Even though the mother extends a hand towards the baby, he is shown swaying unsteadily on the table’s edge. Whether he intended to or not, Pot here offers an insight into the sadness that lurked behind many royal marriages.

Many of the artists in this exhibition knew precisely how to disguise subtle critiques in displays of flamboyance. In 1725 Marcellus Laroon the Younger painted “A Dinner Party”, in which aristocrats feast in a lofty chamber adorned with gloomier, more traditional portraits. Unafraid to enliven the scene with a dash of satire, Laroon includes a plump, red-faced gardener quietly boozing in the corner. A fancifully dressed servant boy dances past, seeming to echo the nimble body of the dog behind him. As for milord the host, he sits at the head of his dinner table and shows off by pouring wine from a great height into a glass.

Laroon deliberately set out to poke fun at the absurd behaviour of extravagant young toffs. The same cannot be said of Philippe Mercier, whose 1733 conversation piece depicts Frederick, Prince of Wales and his sisters vigorously involved in “The Music Party”. Or are they? True, the prince addresses himself to playing the cello, while two of his sisters accompany him. But Princess Amelia appears oddly detached, reading a volume of Milton’s poems while pressing her right hand against the side of her head: she might be trying to block the royal cacophony from her ear.

Family values may seem to be celebrated in a more reassuring way by Johan Zoffany, the 18th-century German-born painter who settled in England. Around 1765 he painted “Queen Charlotte with Her Two Eldest Sons”, a highly accomplished piece that shows at least some affection between the lavishly dressed mother and her children. Arrayed in fanciful costumes, the two boys disport themselves in the queen’s dressing room – but she is stroking a dog rather than caressing them.

Eight years later, Zoffany took the royal family outdoors for a group portrait called “Queen Charlotte with her Children and Brothers”. Here, the two eldest men pose casually as elegant gentlemen, and a more tightly knit interaction prevails. Everyone is still striving for grandeur, yet the painting as a whole is more informal in mood than the two great set-pieces of the exhibition. Both painted by Zoffany, the star of this show, they show just how cleverly he could handle large, complicated groups of figures. 

In “The Academicians of the Royal Academy” (1772), the academy’s first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, gesticulates theatrically with an enormous metal ear-trumpet in a statue-bedecked room at London’s Somerset House. A Chinese artist called Tan-che-qua, who was visiting London, does appear to be fascinated by the academicians’ conversation, but Zoffany himself, portrayed on the left, makes no attempt to join in. He gazes out at us, blatantly showing off the palette clasped in his hand.

Zoffany’s immense painting “The Tribuna of the Uffizi” was a handsome £300 commission from Queen Charlotte to paint the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s collection in the Uffizi Palace. He travelled to Florence in 1772; five years later the painting was finished at last. Everyone could see that Zoffany’s copies of the paintings by Raphael, Rubens and other masters on the Uffizi’s walls could hardly be faulted. Yet he crowded the scene below with sumptuously dressed English spectators, including minor artists such as Thomas Patch and Sir Horace Mann, the British consul in Florence, all of them gawping with hungry eyes at erotic classical statues and Titian’s alluring Venus laid out invitingly on her bed.

We do not know where to begin looking at this fantastically complicated, unintentionally hilarious scene. And when Zoffany took it to London in 1778, his tour de force was greeted with disdain. Queen Charlotte “expressed wonder at Zoffany having done so improper a thing as to introduce the portraits of Sir Horace Mann, Patch, & others” and “would not suffer the picture to be placed in any of her apartments”.

The hapless Zoffany had over-reached himself in this fascinating yet congested canvas. He should have opted for the distilled approach favoured by Gainsborough, who in the late 1780s gave an ethereal, Watteau-like quality to his elongated oval painting of the small Duke of Cumberland taking the air with his taller duchess in a richly foliated park, close together and both very upright, while the blue sky above them possesses an intense luminosity. The admiring William Hazlitt observed that it was “all motion, and in a flutter like a lady’s fan”. The duchess’s elaborately costumed sister, Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, seated on her own in a dark corner, looks melancholy and envious watching the couple glide by.

No sadness can be detected in Landseer’s painting of “Windsor Castle in Modern Times”. It shows a moment in the early 1840s when Prince Albert returns from a day’s shooting; Queen Victoria, slim and youthful, welcomes him back with flowers in her hand. This devoted couple, unlike Charles I and Henrietta Maria, gaze at each other while their sturdy little daughter plays with a “halcyon”, a bird symbolising peace. Yet what of the bullet-ridden birds littering the carpet? This happy domesticity seems, to say the least, a little undermined.

‘The Conversation Piece’, Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, until September 20. www.royalcollection.org.uk

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