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Portraiture in England in the Long Eighteenth Century


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Robert Maniura
  • Assessment: a 3000-word essay (60%) and three-hour examination (40%)

Module description

This module will explore the most flourishing and persistently popular genre of art in eighteenth-century England: portraiture. We will begin by discussing various strategies and approaches to portraits in general, and considering the history of the genre in England prior to the late seventeenth century. We then explore 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; 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.

The module then takes 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 be focused 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.