The Conversation Piece Making Modern Art in 18th-Century Britain Kate Retford

Publication date:
24 Oct 2017
Paul Mellon Centre
440 pages: 254 x 241mm
150 color + 85 b-w illus.
Sales territories:


Shortlisted for the 2018 Apollo Book of the Year award

Pioneered by William Hogarth (1697–1764) and his peers in the early 18th century, and then revitalized by Johan Zoffany (1733–1810), the conversation piece was an innovative mode of portraiture, depicting groups posed in landscape or domestic settings. These artists grappled with creating complex multi-figured compositions and intricate narratives, filling their paintings with representations of socially, nationally, and temporally precise customs. Paying particular attention to the vibrant (and at times fabricated) interior and exterior settings in these works, Kate Retford discusses the various ways that the conversation piece engaged with the rich material culture of Georgian Britain. The book also explores how these portraits served a wide array of interests and concerns among familial networks and larger social groups. From codifying performances of politeness to engaging in cross-cultural exchanges, the conversation piece was a complex and nuanced expression of a multifaceted society. 

Kate Retford is senior lecturer in 18th- and early 19th-century art at Birkbeck, University of London.

"We should be grateful to Kate Retford […] for bringing so many captivating and unfamiliar examples to our attention." — Ian Robertson, The British Art Journal

"Retford’s volume represents a milestone in our understanding of this slippery form of 18th-century British portraiture." — Stephen Lloyd, Apollo

"Retford’s text is a valuable resource that promises to shift scholarship on the conversation piece" — Alexandra MacDonald, Reviews in History

Art Quarterly praises Kate Retford's "sharp eye, thorough research and interesting analysis" — Sarah Kent, Art Quarterly

"the author […] achieves her aim of drawing attention to the modernity, innovativeness and complexity of these works" — Mark Jones, Albion Magazine Online

"handsome and impressively researched new survey of conversation pieces" — Matthew Dennison, Country Life

Winner of the Outstanding Academic Title for 2018 award sponsored by Choice

Winner of the 2019 Historians of British Art Award, single-authored book with a subject between 1600-1800 category