Two of the most important paintings at Marble Hill are those by Philip Mercier (1691-1760): The Letter Writer and by Hubert-François Gravelot (1699-1773): le lecteur or The Judicious lover and they are both important examples of a style known as the Conversation Piece. There are in fact only two paintings by Gravelot in this country, including Marble Hill House.
Mercier and his family were Hugenots and had settled in Hanover, to avoid religious persecution in France. However, Mercier later visited Paris and his style was much influenced by Watteau. On returning to Hanover, Frederick Prince of Wales, the son of George II, became his patron and took Mercier to London, where he joined Frederick’s household. He subsequently fell out of favour with the Prince, but did not suffer financially, because when he died in 1773, he left a very substantial fortune. He spent most of the rest of his life in England.
Gravelot was a French painter, engraver, and illustrator and had an important influence on English painting. He studied in Paris, under Boucher, and already had established himself as a well-known illustrator before going to London in 1732. The Oxford Dictionary of Art says: “His delicate, elegant drawings, in a Rococo tradition derived from Watteau, were highly influential on his English contemporaries including Hogarth, Highmore, and Hayman.” He worked with Hogarth as a teacher at the St Martin’s Lane Academy, which Hogarth had re-established in 1734 and where Gravelot taught drawing. Gainsborough was one of his pupils and Francis Hayman was also teacher there. Gravelot and Hayman worked on the designs at Vauxhall Gardens. Gravelot designed the tickets and Hayman decorated the supper boxes. Gravelot became a popular designer and engraver and his works included illustrating Gay’s Fables (1738), Shakespeare (1740), and working again with Hayman, Richardson’s novel Pamela (1742). Gravelot returned to Paris in 1746, but continued to work for English clients.
Both Mercier and Gravelot were, in part, responsible for introducing the style known as the Conversation Piece, which developed into the portrait form known as the Conversation Portrait. The Conversation Piece had been popular in the Netherlands in the 17th century and was developed by Watteau in his fête galante paintings, a number of which are in the Wallace Collection. However, William Vaughan (British Painting: the Golden Age) says “the style known as Conversation Portrait was fashioned by Flemish and French emigré painters in London, in particularly, Philip Mercier and says that the typical picture shows an elegant social gathering”. Mercier’s The Music Party; Frederick and his Sisters at Kew 1733 is a good example. The original is in the National Portrait Gallery and there is a copy in the Museum of Richmond. Neither of these two paintings here are “Conversation Portraits.”