At Tate Britain

Peter Campbell

Imagine a party attended by sitters from English portraits. The Gainsborough crowd rustle in, a blur of silk and powder. You can’t quite bring their faces into focus, but you seem to recognise them. They are elegant and casual. The people who come with Reynolds are their contemporaries, but the atmosphere changes. The men have more gravitas and fall naturally into classical poses, the women are winsomely theatrical. The aristocratic Van Dycks tend towards the soulful and control the arrangement of their pedigree-revealing features, their gestures and their ringlets with an exquisite care that imitates carelessness. The Lelys tumble through the door from another party – the men’s coats unbuttoned, the women’s bosoms as white as their eyes are bright. The Hogarths, a decent, prosperous lot, are here for the food and drink. The Hilliards – some in allusive fancy dress – are full of poetry. The Freuds, who haven’t dressed up at all, slump in armchairs. Some of them fall asleep.

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