Rococo lifestyle

Arthur Devis, portrait of Lucy Watson, Mrs Thornton, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundationk

Arthur Devis, portrait of Lucy Watson, Mrs Thornton, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

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).

Arthur Devis, portrait of Lascelles Raymond Iremonger, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Arthur Devis, portrait of Lascelles Raymond Iremonger, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

Arthur Devis, portrait of a lady, possibly Elizabeth Lacey, Mrs Joshua Iremonger III, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Arthur Devis, portrait of a lady, possibly Elizabeth Lacey, Mrs Joshua Iremonger III, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

Arthur Devis, portrait of Joshua Iremonger III, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Arthur Devis, portrait of Joshua Iremonger III, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

Arthur Devis, portrait of a man seated in a park, supposedly Sir James Burrow, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Arthur Devis, portrait of a man seated in a park, supposedly Sir James Burrow, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Was life just elegantly simple then, or did they have hidden closets bulging with stuff, like 1990s minimalists?

Arthur Devis, portrait of a boy or young man fishing, possibly Christopher Lethieullier, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Arthur Devis, portrait of a boy or young man fishing, possibly Christopher Lethieullier, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

Arthur Devis, portrait of Sarah Lascelles, Mrs Christopher Lethieullier, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Arthur Devis, portrait of Sarah Lascelles, Mrs Christopher Lethieullier, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

Arthur Devis, portrait of a man seated in a parl, possibly Benjamin Lethieullier MP, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Arthur Devis, portrait of a man seated in a park, possibly Benjamin Lethieullier MP, at Uppark. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

These portraits somehow seem to epitomise the rococo in Britain, delicately – or awkwardly – poised between baroque formality and Romantic sensibility.

18 Responses to “Rococo lifestyle”

  1. Chuck Fischer Says:

    Fascinating. So pleased to have found this blog and am enjoying all of your posts.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Chuck, it is always nice when artists feel inspired by our collections.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Um, apart from the period in which they were painted, what is rococo about these paintings? Sorry, but they look to me to be like the (human) portraiture equivalent of those unrealistic pictures of racehorses or cattle or pigs before Stubbs, with fat bodies and spindly legs. Awkward, indeed. Compare, for example, Gainsborough’s much more accomplished Mr and Mrs Andrews.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    But doesn’t Gainsborough’s ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ have something of the same awkwardness, a similar slightly surreal air? The juxtaposition in that picture between Mrs Andrews’s shimmering blue dress and dainty shoes with the self-consciously ‘rustic’ sheaves of corn stacked up a couple of meters away is certainly striking, and similar to the contrast between the sitters’ fine clothes and bucolic surroundings in Devis’s portraits. Gainsborough’s skill is indeed on an altogether different plane, but I think both painters convey something of that growing but as yet tentative engagement with nature characteristic of the mid eighteenth century. I think you can call that ‘rococo’, although I am aware that that term has many, sometimes contradictory definitions.

  5. Andrew Says:

    There is certainly something in what you say – engagement with the natural – but these paintings are not exactly Watteau, Boucher or Fragonard! Where are the graceful curves and natural asymmetries?

    Looking more carefully, some of these paintings have elements that could be called rococo (some of the chairs, or the decorative plasterwork) but they are all a bit too formal and symmetrical for me.

    Sadly I’ve missed the Waldemar Januszczak documentaries – his previous ones have been great fun. I’ll have to try iPlayer.

  6. Jack Plane Says:

    Devis’ gangly figures and disproportionate furniture are ungainly, but if his (historically) accurate depiction of fashionable furniture is anything to go by, the sparsely decorated interiors must also be believable.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, yes the English rococo was a more subdued affair – the Palladian movement seems to have got in the way of a full flowering of the rococo style as happened in France and Italy and so on.

    Jack, yes in spite of the stiltedness there must be a fair degree of accuracy (together with some stylist’s magic) in these portraits – after all, Devis was a successful portrait painter, so presumably his sitters generally considered these depictions to be accurate and appropriate.

  8. Lex van Haart Says:

    There is an ‘unheimisch’ look about these portraits; when I showed them to friend this morning, she promptly defined it as ‘gothic rococo’. There is indeed something surrealistic about them, but I feel the responses here are rather negative – i.e. there is only one form of rococo, and that is the from of Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard? Rococo was the era, the style knew many forms – Devis chose his own, and as with most of those individualistic styles: You either like it or dislike it. Personally, I like it. especially the portrait of Mrs. Lethieullier – the sheer brilliance of laying out a carpet outdoors and putting her there behind a spinning wheel!
    Devis might not have gone overboard on the rococo flair and (sometimes) mind-numbing overload, he makes the viewer think and look closer. And do have a closer look at his way of painting fabric – Ter Borch worthy!
    Great find, Emile!

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Hurrah, a fellow Devis-enthusiast :)

    Yes the curious combination of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ in that portrait of Mrs Lehtieullier is wonderful, isn’t it? I am imagining the group of servants, just ‘out of shot’, who have brought out the floorcloth, the table, the chair and the spinning wheel and have set it up for her, and who are now hovering about in case Ma’am might need some refreshments, or perhaps pen and paper to record some rococo thoughts about her sylvan surroundings :)

    And that also reminds me of this equally evocative (but more serious, less rococo) image of Queen Victoria working on her government papers out of doors, at her ‘cottage’, Frogmore, in Windsor Great Park: http://bit.ly/1epelj1

  10. Lex van Haart Says:

    Ha! Or to explain to her how it works.
    ‘Let me see if I got this right : When I turn the wheel over here, the other thingy will twirl and spin – and do something to the wool?’
    ‘Yes Ma’am, it will spin.’
    ‘Oh, I see. A -spinning- wheel!’
    ‘Indeed Ma’am’
    ~ ‘Could you please sit still Madame, otherwise I’ll never be able to finish this sketch…’

    And to all critics: Now try applying these merry thoughts to a Boucher! I rest my – and Emile’s – case: Devis is great :-)
    As for Queen Victoria, at least she knew how to handle a pen, I do wonder about the Indian fellow with the cane though.

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Your little scenario shows how ‘filmic’ these portraits are :)

    Queen Victoria had several Indian servants – I think this one is standing ready with her walking stick. But in contrast to the Devis pictures here the servant is clearly ‘in shot’ – presumably a conscious reference to the Queen’s role as Empress of India.

  12. Lex van Haart Says:

    Then the boxes and paperwork could be a reference to the many headaches she endured because of it? :-)
    Ah, the loss of the Empire; my grandmother’s family mourned it deeply – some still do.

  13. Andrew Says:

    Sorry, just not to my taste I suppose.

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I suppose Devis is a bit like Marmite :) I will see if I can do a post on Gainsborough as well.

  15. Deana@lostpastremembered Says:

    These are splendid –– I think “Gothic Rococo” says it all. The contrast of the quiet of the canvas with the froth of Rococo plasterwork would be marvelous.

  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes I agree. And they would seem to be useful inspirations for film production design!

  17. Susan Barsy Says:

    I wonder how these paintings relate to the genre of the ‘conversation piece’ painting. The conversation pieces I’m familiar with have a pronounced materialistic quality, with figures posed against the backdrop of proud belongings. The portraits you show here have some of the same qualities, but then look at the framing–many of the more interesting objects are off-center or really impossible to see. . . . or are vaguely ridiculous (the lady with spinning wheel–note obelisk hidden behind her chair). . . . the figures seem stranded, with their persons displaying an almost terrifying specificity relative to their banal surroundings.

  18. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan, yes they are like conversation pieces, aren’t they – I am not sure where the exact boundary lies between portraits and conversation pieces, but these certainly have the ‘materiality’ of the latter.

    The slight oddness you note may have more to do with Devis’s style, for better or for worse: his eye for detail coupled with the slightly stilted quality of his figures and spaces.

    But the obelisk you spotted is actually the end-post of a fence, apparently painted grey, perhaps with a hint of the Gotick Revival in the pointed finial, and probably again an attempt by Devis to indicate ‘rusticity’ :)

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