A conversation piece: The tale of two ‘The Strode Family’ paintings

By Michael Monica, Jean Cushwa College Intern, 2023

We hope that you enjoy this painting from the collection.
The museum would also like to thank Michael for his assistance with many curatorial projects this summer.
We wish him every success in his future endeavors!

Strode family 1

Unknown (British)
after William Hogarth (1697–1764)

The Strode Family, 18th or 19th century
Oil on canvas
47½ x 48½ in.
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Mr. Stewart Huston, A1547,68.0016

The Strode Family is an example of a type of group portrait called a “conversation piece” that became popular in the mid-1700s. Conversation pieces depict their subjects at ease in informal group portraits and provide viewers with a way to understand how the upper classes wanted to be perceived. In conversation pieces, instead of using a typical portrayal through formal portraiture, the artist groups people in a way intended to reflect their refinement and social status. Here, it is the sophisticated and relatively new ritual of tea. This painting emphasizes the family’s distinguished position through its luxurious material possessions, including furniture, ceramics, books, and oil paintings.

The Strode Family is a copy completed by an unknown painter, after an earlier painting made by renowned British artist William Hogarth (see below). In the example on view, the artist emulated Hogarth faithfully by recreating the Strode family’s lively gathering in a domestic interior.

One can observe each member of the Strode family and their friends. The focus of the painting is the wealthy magnate, politician, and original patron, William Strode, who is sitting at the central table with his wife, Lady Anne Cecil. Next to William is his tutor, Dr. Arthur Smyth. To the right of Anne is William’s relative, Colonel Samuel Strode. The family butler, Jonathan Powell, pours tea. On the back wall, a large landscape and views of Venice are visible, serving as reminders of William’s Grand Tour of Europe. Other elements, such as the well-behaved and cared-for dogs, full bookcase, and barrel-vaulted ceiling all indicate the Strode family’s aristocratic social status and reaffirm the goal of the painting to depict them as a fashionable, affluent group. A particular aspect of note is the importance of the Strode family dogs, which represent fidelity but also symbolize Hogarth’s own fondness for canine companions. Hogarth’s pug, Trump, is shown at the feet of Colonel Strode. Trump’s presence is even emphasized by the taut leash held by the Colonel, acting as a tool to draw the viewer’s eye down to Hogarth’s own pet.

When it initially entered the museum’s collection, this work was believed to have been created by James Collinson, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who studied under both William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Research, however, has made it difficult to confirm this attribution., The Pre-Raphaelites called for a return to early Italian Renaissance art and focused on capturing intense detail while also rebelling against depictions of everyday life. These factors make it intriguing that Collinson would then choose to make a copy of Hogarth’s The Strode Family, though not implausible, as he did make paintings depicting everyday life after leaving the Brotherhood. Another aspect of note is that the Pre-Raphaelites were not without appreciation for the work of Hogarth as Rossetti and many other former members of the artistic movement formed the Hogarth club after the dissolution of the Brotherhood, though without Collinson’s involvement.

Strode family 2

William Hogarth
The Strode Family, c.1738.
Oil on canvas
Tate, London, bequeathed by Rev. William Finch 1880. Photo: Tate

This WeekendArt is sponsored by Mr. & Mrs. Paul C. Mellott, Jr.