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Dr Kate Retford

Senior lecturer in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century art

BA, MA (Warwick), PhD (Warwick)

Kate Retford joined the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck in 2003. She researches eighteenth-century British art, particularly the portraiture of the period, issues of gender, and the country house art collection. Kate has written a number of articles and her first book, The Art of Domestic Life: Family Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century England, published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press in 2006, was runner-up for the Longman History Today Book Award that year.

Kate is a member of the Birkbeck Eighteenth-Century Research Group.

New Book: The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Kate was awarded a Paul Mellon Senior Fellowship (October 2013 to April 2014) to help her complete her new book, The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain. This was published by Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre in October 2017. The Conversation Piece explores the emergence of a new type of small group portrait in eighteenth-century Britain, in which diminutive sitters, engaged in activities such as taking tea or playing cards, are seen seated in genteel interiors or enjoying the air in their landscape gardens. The first monograph on this subject for decades, it examines the reasons for the development of this innovative art form, unpicks the resonances of that evocative word 'conversation', analyses the nature and function of those carefully described settings, and explores the full range of relationships encompassed in these groups.

Read a review of Kate's book by Alexandra Macdonald here.

Country Houses, Town Houses

Kate has recently been involved in a number of projects about British houses and art collections. In 2013, she co-edited a collection of essays exploring the relationship between eighteenth-century portraiture and the English country house, with Professor Gill Perry, Dr Jordan Vibert and Hannah Lyons, entitled Placing Faces: The Portrait and the English Country House in the Long Eighteenth Century (Manchester University Press). In 2015, she co-organised a major conference entitled Animating the Eighteenth-Century Country House, a collaboration between Birkbeck, the National Gallery, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. This was followed by a related event the following year, co-organised by the same institutions: Animating the Georgian London Town House. This will form the basis of a volume of essays, co-edited by Kate and Dr. Susanna Avery-Quash, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic later in 2018.

Print Rooms

Kate has begun a new research project on print rooms in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century country houses in Britain and Ireland, with the support of a research support grant from the Paul Mellon Centre. A fashion for pasting prints onto the walls of a room, often adorned with printed paper borders and decorative elements such as festoons, was in full swing from the 1750s through to the 1820s. Engraved images ranging from portraits, through scenes from Piranesi’s 'Vedute di Roma', to contemporary satires were compiled in striking displays that could run from numbers of 30-50 to some 200-300 prints. 


Contact details

tel: 0207 631 6114

Mailing address

Department of History of Art
School of Arts
Birkbeck, University of London
43 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PD

About Dr Kate Retford