Joseph Highmore’s ‘conversation piece’ of The Harlowe Family

Many editions of Clarissa have the Joseph Highmore painting on the front cover, and in this post I discuss the significance of the painting, and how it relates to the themes of family, kinship, power and control that the novel explores. Incidentally, for many years the painting was thought to be by William Hogarth, and was entitled simply ‘A Conversation’. In his biography of Hogarth, Austin Dobson referred to it as ‘The Green Room, Drury Lane’, and it was only in the 1940s that the subject was correctly identified by T. C. Duncan Eaves as ‘The Harlowe Family by Joseph Highmore.

Extract adapted from chapter 4 of my book Clarissa’s Painter: Portraiture, Illustration , and Representation in the Novels of Samuel Richardson

Highmore and Richardson were firm friends by the time the picture was painted, and when work began on Clarissa Highmore was one of the privileged few permitted to see some parts of the work in manuscript’. This inspired his painting of the Harlowes, which many consider to be one of his finest works. The painting, now in the Paul Mellon Collection, illustrates the moment when Clarissa returns from her visit to Anna and finds herself led ‘in great form . . . into the great parlour, where were my father, mother, my two uncles, and my sister’. As Richardson wrote to Lady Bradshaigh, ‘Mr Highmore has . . . drawn the assembled Harlowes, the accusing Brother, and the accused Sister on her return from Miss Howe’s, as represented at the beginning of vol. I’.

The painting adopts what looks––at least at first––to be a conventional triangular composition of a family ‘conversation piece’, with the father at the central apex, and the family grouped around and beneath him according to age and status. But look closer and the painting reveals itself to be a literal visualisation of the text, transcribing Richardson’s words with absolute accuracy, gesture for gesture, expression for expression:

My brother seemed ready to give a loose to his passion; my papa put on the countenance, which always portends a gathering storm; my uncles mutteringly whispered; and my sister aggravatingly held up her hands. While I begged to be heard out––and my mamma said, let the child, that was her kind word, be heard––

In fact the painting deliberately inverts the spectator’s expectations of the conversation piece genre – indeed it is more like an ‘altercation piece’ than a conversation piece. It is not Mr Harlowe but James who takes precedence at the centre and apex of this group, and he has his back towards us, and towards Clarissa, forming a physical and emotional barrier between her and her parents. And Clarissa is pushed back into the part of the picture space usually reserved for servants. The principal lines of this composition, like the new lines of influence in the family, run from James’s gesture of command, past the father and uncles, and down along the women’s dresses. The symbolically empty chair is, of course, Clarissa’s, and it is used to divide, rather than unite the figures in the far more claustrophobic picture space.

The painting thus enacts Clarissa’s removal from the family piece, depicting the first time that she is forced to observe the group from the outside, and to read the meaning of ‘every look, every action’. Eventually even the status of spectator is denied her, and confined in her room she has to reconstruct what is happening in the ‘angry assembly’ taking place downstairs from the sounds in the house: ‘my heart is disturbed at every foot I hear stir; and every door below that I hear open or shut. They have been all assembled some time, and are in close debate, I believe’. The painting thus anticipates the text, and replicates visually the control of the family narrative that James is about to assume.

Within days Mr Harlowe has ceded his authority formally to his son, Arabella has positioned herself alongside James, and Mrs Harlowe, unable to sustain a version of the family that has her ‘and her youngest daughter standing against her husband, his two brothers, her son, her eldest daughter, and her sister Hervey’, withdraws into a neurasthenic passivity.  In fact the entire conflict between Clarissa and her parents is imaged in exactly these terms, as Clarissa ‘standing in opposition’ to the rest of her family. The Harlowes plan to bring this stalemate to a head by having ‘a father to KNEEL to a daughter!’: ‘your father and mother (reverse to what should have been!) would have humbled themselves to you’. The power of this image lies in its conspicuous inversion of the conventions of family portraiture. Despite appearances to the contrary the Harlowe family piece has never really conformed to such conventions, but now the family’s disequilibrium is observable even to beholders outside the family, who are quick to create a narrative to explain it:

 We heard moreover, that you received no visitors . . . Miss Lloyd and Miss Biddulph were with me to inquire what I knew of this . . . It was easy for me to guess the reason to be what you confirm––their apprehensions that Lovelace would be there . . .

As the formal and executive centre of the family, and ‘armed himself with the authority of a father’, James Harlowe now exerts his authority by dictating who has access to whom, who is allowed to join the family in its ‘full assembly’, who is to be removed from the house, and who is to be confined within it. In other words, he orchestrates the disposition of people in the confined spaces of Harlowe Place: ‘I flew to the door, and would have opened it––but my brother pulled it to, and held it close by the key––Oh my papa!––my dear papa, said I, falling upon my knees, at the door––admit your child to your presence!’ Like a painter of conversation pieces, it is now James decides who is included and who excluded, who is placed next to whom, and how their relationship is to be publicly articulated. 


Published 18 February 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: