Waldemar Januszczak has recently been entertaining and educating us about the rococo on British TV. By pure coincidence I just spotted these charming rococo-period portraits of English gentry by Arthur Devis (1712-87).
Devis’s portraits always have something slightly stilted about them, but at the same time they show lots of telling little details of people’s dress and furnishings.
The chimney board in the portrait of Mrs Thornton, for instance, appears to be decorated with a Chinese picture or section of wallpaper, a practice that was fairly widespread at the time – Lucy Johnson has found references to them being introduced at Woburn Abbey in the early 1750s.
It is also fascinating to see how empty the interiors are in Devis’s pictures, with just the occasional chair or table, a vase in the fireplace or a few porcelain jars and statuettes on the chimneypiece. Some of the floors are just bare boards, others appear to be covered by plain floorcloths with an occasional Turkey rug on top.
Was life just elegantly simple then, or did they have hidden closets bulging with stuff, like 1990s minimalists?
Or was Arthur Devis a stylist as well as a portraitist, skilfully editing his clients’ interiors? The little book propped on the dado rail in the portrait of Lascelles Raymond Iremonger, for instance, seems to betray the casually perfect touch of the stylist.
The outdoor portraits are equally fascinating, showing the sitters enjoying ‘nature’ in carefully composed settings. Mrs Christopher Lethieullier seems to have been provided with a floorcloth to protect her shoes and dress from the dirt, while the gentlemen appear to be slightly more carefree, seated on green-painted garden chairs and even putting their tricorn hats on the ground.
These portraits somehow seem to epitomise the rococo in Britain, delicately – or awkwardly – poised between baroque formality and Romantic sensibility.