|Oil on canvas
|25 x 30 inches 64 x 76.4 cm
We are grateful to Professor Brian Allen of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art for confirming the attribution to Gravelot.
Gravelot’s impact on the course of British art history cannot be overstated. His arrival from France, where he had studied under Francois Boucher, in 1732/3 heralded the introduction of the latest French rococo style into England, and transformed contemporary fashion and taste. The instant popularity of rococo owed much to Gravelot’s propensity for illustrations, for his designs spread rapidly through engravings, books, and furniture designs. He also taught at the St Martin’s Lane Academy. Ellis Waterhouse, in his consummate survey ‘Painting in Britain 1530-1790’ [London 1954 p136-7], concluded that Gravelot “was the prime sponsor of the rococo and French manner which did much to break down the Augustan formality, and reached its purest flowering in the early work of Gainsborough.”
Gravelot’s work as a painter, however, is barely known. Until now, there have been only three pictures known to be the artist. We can be certain that Gravelot painted thanks to a single entry in his sale catalogue (19th May 1773, Catalogue title; “Gravelot, dessinateur, Professeur des Inénieurs du Roi”); “plusiers tableaux peints par feu M. Gravelot a Londres et a Paris.” Seven unspecified pictures were sold in three lots. The present picture represents a fourth painting by Gravelot, and adds immeasurably to our knowledge not only of Gravelot’s work, but also the origins of popular art in mid-eighteenth century England.
Gravelot’s ‘Quadrille’ was a design for a larger picture by the studio of the English artist Francis Hayman. The full-sized ‘Quadrille’ (now in the Birmingham City Art Gallery) was one of fifty or so pictures that adorned the walls of ‘supper boxes’ at Vauxhall Gardens in the mid-eighteenth century. The Gardens, on the south side of the Thames, were a popular attraction open in the summer for promenading, music, theatre and dining. The diarist Samuel Pepys recorded an early trip to “Foxhall” on 30 May 1668; “there fell into the company of Harry Killigrew, a rogue… And so to supper in an arbor; but Lord! their mad bawdy talk did make my heart ake. [Robert Latham ed. Penguin edition 2003 p919]
By the mid eighteenth century the ‘arbors’ where Pepys dined had become more elaborate tented ‘supper-boxes’. In about 1740 the then proprietor of the Gardens Jonathan Tyers decided, in the face of competition from the Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens (later made famous by Canaletto), that displaying works of art could help him attract more visitors. The decision was an astounding success, not least because it was effectively England’s first public art gallery. In each of the supper-boxes Tyers hung a painted scene, or ‘conversation piece’, with the latest designs by artists such as Hogarth, Hayman, and Gravelot.
Almost all the pictures were painted in the studio of Francis Hayman, a leading artist of the day whose pupils included the young Gainsborough. Professor Allen has shown in his article ‘Francis Hayman and the Supper Box Paintings for Vauxhall Gardens’ [in The Rococo in England, London 1986], that most of the supper-box pictures for Vauxhall were produced in a short period of time in the early 1740s. We know from the letter-press of early engravings that Gravelot was responsible for a number of designs, which are immediately distinguishable in the Vauxhall series by the elegance of the composition and the obviously French fashion and interiors. Those now known to be by Gravelot are; The House of Cards, the Mock Doctor, and Quadrille.
The methods used to produce Hayman’s Vauxhall pictures may help explain the origins of the present picture, and are worth examining here. It seems probable that Gravelot painted his designs as opposed to simply drawing them. Given the almost factory-like production of so many Vauxhall pictures in such a short period of time, it would make sense for Gravelot to produce colour pictures for copying by Hayman’s assistants rather than drawings, in order to avoid the risk of any misinterpretation. Another example is Gravelot’s small painting, ‘The Mock Doctor’, now belonging to the Gainsborough House Museum, Suffolk. A 1743 engraving records that ‘The Mock Doctor’ was painted in Hayman’s studio (recorded in the print as “F. Hayman Pinx”), but the recent discovery of Gravelot’s small initial canvas would appear to confirm that he painted his designs first. Gravelot’s delicately painted version again illustrates his subtle interpretation of the English conversation piece, and is reminiscent in design and execution to Quadrille and House of Cards.
An overriding quality of Gravelot’s ‘Quadrille’ is its delicate sense of narrative, achieved through the player’s finely observed interaction and reinforced by the fine, almost hesitant application of paint. Gravelot’s placing of the figures in pairs, for example, imparts the picture with a clear sense of rhythm. On the left of the picture, the seated man’s bravura selection of a card is balanced by the noticeably hesitant manner of his partner, who, in clutching her cards to her chest presents a contrast to the more trusting couple in the centre. On the right of the table a man is caught mid-conversation, in what appears to be either a flirtation with his partner or a private moment of intimacy.
The composition is balanced, in both artistic and social terms, by the introduction of a maid and young black servant (perhaps a slave), who are both studiously ignored by the players. The maid, undoubtedly the same model as Gravelot’s ‘A Seated Lady’ (Gainsborough House Museum, Suffolk), plays an essential role in the picture’s narrative. The young servant is amused by her anxious glance towards the gaming table. Is she simply wondering what to do with her tray, or is her resigned look towards the seated man part of the picture’s story? Perhaps she is jealous? A poem written below Gravelot’s picture on the 1743 engraving provides an intriguing subtext to the picture;
“Intent the tedious Hours of Life to kill,
The Modish seek the Refuge of Quadrille,
Thoughtless and gay the Moments take their flight,
And Time’s vast load, illuded thus, sits light,
Whilst the Grave justly lash, as idle sport,
This darling Business of Town and Court,
But yet the trifling many won’t be taught,
To make a nobler use of time and thought.”
It seems, therefore, that Gravelot’s picture was designed to provoke socio-political questions about the closed nature of the English class system. The picture clearly highlights the maid’s disappointment, even envy, at not being able to participate in the games of her employers. ‘Quadrille’ would thus have been the perfect conversation piece for the (often radical) Vauxhall diners – mildly Rabelaisian, fashionably French, and filled with poignant social observation.
Unfortunately, we cannot fully understand the effect the finished pictures had on diners at Vauxhall due to the poor condition of all the surviving examples. For example, the details in the large-scale Quadrille have been damaged almost to the point of extinction. Conditions at Vauxhall were evidently not conducive to displaying fine art. The boxes were open to the elements, and the guests, fascinated by what they saw, could not resist touching the paintings; “At Vauxhall… they have touched up all the pictures”, reported the Gentleman’s magazine in 1755, “[because] all those Connoisseurs, could not be satisfied without feeling whether the pictures were alive.”[Allen The Rococo in England, London 1986 Francis Hayman and the Supper-Box Paintings, p119] It is, therefore, only in studies such as the present picture that we can today see the best of the Rococco art on offer in mid-eighteenth London.