BOOK REVIEWS: Art of Portraying the Bliss of Happy Families; the Art of Domestic Life or Family Portraiture in 18th Century England by Kate Redford, Yale, Pounds 30

The Birmingham Post (England), July 15, 2006 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEWS: Art of Portraying the Bliss of Happy Families; the Art of Domestic Life or Family Portraiture in 18th Century England by Kate Redford, Yale, Pounds 30


Byline: Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

In that old soap war horse, Dallas, there was a moment when we saw Miss Ellie debating with the maid whether or not to order a couple of new dinner services (think of the cost) for the dining room.

It was an instance of conspicuous spending which is dealt with in Kate Redford's book.

But even more interesting was the family photograph which appeared in the sitting room. Large, flashily framed and blatantly in-your-face, it showed how photography had taken over completely the role of the portrait painter abandoning the time-consuming painted portrait for a populist image created in a second by the camera.

Yet there was a time when artists moved into a family house for months on end in order to paint portraits of the father of the house, his wife and children.

Sometimes they would be standing by the fireplace in elaborate clothes looking pensive. But other times the children might be seated around the tea table in the never-never world of perfect children and loving parents which was in some instances merely a fantasy.

Lower down the social scale, itinerant painters - some of them extremely clever, others only competent - added to their portraits of the family with equally interesting portraits of the prize winning animals in the farmyard.

The money was very good, you got your board and lodgings for a few weeks while you painted away, and if the family themselves occasionally resembled the pigs and the prize sheep well nobody minded very much and put it down to the artist's mind rambling a little on the home-brewed cider.

But Kate Redford has produced an excellent, well researched study which explores in a fascinating way the small conversation paintings along with the grandiose glamourous full-length images we see on the walls in National Trust properties today.

The aim in paintings of this kind was not only to advertise one's wealth, but also one's social position. A family group painted by one of the greats, Reynolds, Gainsborough, or George Romney, artists who led the field, told the world in no uncertain terms that one had "arrived" and its cachet was an extension of the virtues contained within one's house with its manicured grounds, liveried servants and ornate family silver. …

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BOOK REVIEWS: Art of Portraying the Bliss of Happy Families; the Art of Domestic Life or Family Portraiture in 18th Century England by Kate Redford, Yale, Pounds 30
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