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Portraiture in England in the Long Eighteenth Century


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Professor Kate Retford
  • Assessment: a 1000-word research commentary (20%) and 3500-word essay (80%)

Module description

In this module we will explore the most flourishing and persistently popular genre of art in eighteenth-century England: portraiture. We will begin by discussing:

  • strategies and approaches to portraits in general
  • the history of the genre in England prior to the late seventeenth century
  • the main developments of the period 1688-1832.

Sessions focused on key artists and types of portraiture will include the conversation piece; the portraits of William Hogarth; Joshua Reynolds and the historical portrait; and Thomas Gainsborough and the portraiture of sensibility. Intermingled with these, we will consider the production and display of portraits in eighteenth-century England, unpicking the business practices of the most successful portraitists of the day; the impact of the rise of exhibitions and the expansion of the print market; and the display of portraiture within the home, particularly the country house.

We then take a more overtly thematic approach, exploring various modes of portraiture across the entire period. We will look at representations of certain types of prominent individual - members of the royal family, actors and actresses, the naval or military hero, for example - and consider representations of family groups, and changes in the portrayal of children that took place over the course of the century. A couple of classes will focus on particular types of portrait: the miniature and the series of portraits produced for eighteenth-century male societies such as the Kit-Kat club. A session on self-portraiture will consider the fascinating complexities arising from the artistic gaze being turned upon the self. Another, entitled ‘death and commemoration’, will explore a number of case studies in which portraiture’s persistent association with absence and mortality came to the fore. We end with a class based at the National Portrait Gallery.

Indicative syllabus

  • The business of portraiture
  • The conversation piece
  • Exhibiting portraiture
  • Joshua Reynolds and the historical portrait
  • Thomas Gainsborough and the art of sensibility
  • Actors and actresses
  • The hero
  • The English abroad
  • The 'new child'
  • Self-portraiture