Great Works: The James Family (1751) by Arthur Devis

Tate, London

In the wake of prosperity comes the immense burden of self-satisfaction. How to show off to the world that you are worthy of its admiration, that you deserve to be fêted among all the rest – not too many, thank goodness. Here is what we might call a choice variant upon an 18th-century "conversation" piece, a family in a soberly self-aggrandising mood of self-display, harmonious, regulated, never likely to be subject to the kind of riotous, sulliedly urban misbehaviour that the disgraceful Hogarth seemed to delight in showing.

No, there is nothing but a casually, carefully – but can we really mix the casual and the artful in this way? Oh yes – wrought elegance here. That in itself is interesting, that elegance of this kind can show itself as casual, not under any kind of threat of discomfiture or bad behaviour or bad manners. Everything is made possible – all this polite dissimulation of you like- by a kind of compact between painter and patron.

A pact has been reached that the painter shall show his patrons as both the custodians of nature – see how that estate sweeps away at their back, and how they part as if in a formal dance movement, two to the left and two to the right, adults and children, oh so carefully graded, to give us all an opportunity to savour this gorgeous, sweeping view, with its beautifully positioned folly at the edge of the manufactured lake in the middle distance, and its church on the far horizon, another bastion of propriety and regulated good governance. What a god this painter is! He has tidied any threatening clouds away from the sky.

In fact, look carefully at those clouds. They lack Constable's characterfulness. They are not really elemental players in their own right at all. They are too wispy, too easily forgotten. They are merely a small, constituent part of this gilded scene. He has also parted the trees – see how the tallest tree, on the extreme left of the painting, appears to sweep leftward as if in a kind of self-apologetic bowing gesture. Nothing about this tidy version of pastoral is at all unruly. Nature, in such a scene as this, is playing handmaid to its human proprietor. It does not have angry thoughts of its own.

Most of all, we are here to attend to the family – all the rest is scene-setting. There is such finery here. The artist has dressed them, prinked them, delicately prettified them until they stand before us as inert models of a species of social respectability that is as unbudgeable and dependable as the wood from which they seem to have been fashioned. It is a stage set, this. The parting of the family, two to the left and two to the right, seem to suggest this too. It is as if the scene is a painted backdrop, and that the family is here to take a bow beneath the splendid proscenium arch of a benevolent God's kindly sky for being quite so splendidly genteel and thoroughly agreeable.

Although there are children present here, there is no evidence of the refractoriness of childhood. Childhood has not yet been invented. These offspring are miniaturised adults, tiny scaled-down models, dressed in a similar fashion to the gilded matriarch. There is no wildness, no wilfulness, no errancy about these girls. They are masks of dutiful social decorum, as smooth and unblemished in their self-presentation as any couplet by Alexander Pope.

The faces of these people have been robbed of almost all expressiveness. No one smiles, no one blows a raspberry. They are all blended together and of a piece. And yet there is something that causes a slight feeling of tension – the improbable thinness of the legs and the chairs. Once again, they suggest delicacy, but they also cause ideas of extreme fragility to emerge. That which is so thin can so easily be broken. If we can set aside that slight twinge of unease aside, we all find ourselves agreeing – do we not? –that it is almost perfectly lovely.

About the artist: Arthur Devis (1712-1787)

Arthur Devis was a fashionable English landscape painter whose speciality was conversation pieces. Although he was fond of showing genteel families in the context of English landscape, complete with very particular topographical details, the painted backdrops were often synthetic and of Devis's own invention. In later life, having fallen out of favour as a painter for his old-fashioned stylistic mannerisms, he busied himself as a restorer. One of his more heroic achievements was to have fathered 22 children.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'