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The Edwards Family on a Terrace

Charles Philips

Artwork Details

The Edwards Family on a Terrace
Charles Philips
oil on canvas
28 in. x 36 in. ( 71.1 cm x 91.4 cm )
Museum purchase made possible by the W. Hawkins Ferry Fund


March 28, 2009
This canvas, an early example of the genre of English portraiture known as the conversation piece, was painted by Charles Philips, one of the genre’s most successful practitioners. It depicts three generations of the family of Walter Edwards of London gathered together in an elegant garden. Walter stands in the middle of the group of adults that includes his wife, Mary, his brother, William, on his left, and a seated elderly woman, perhaps his mother. Walter’s two sons stand slightly apart from the adults, seemingly immersed in their own imaginings, one holding a parrot and the other a shell. Privileged children of this time would, in fact, have been kept apart, having little contact with their parents.
In the portrait Philips lavished attention on representing the sitters’ possessions and property, with references to classicizing architecture and landscaping that testified to their wealth and good taste. Less attention was devoted to the posing of the figures and their integration into the setting, flaws that were overlooked by patrons like the Edwards family, who prized Philips’ portraits as displays of the family’s affluence and status. Patrons for this kind of painting typically came from the newly monied classes, such as bankers or merchants, for whom the relatively modest scale of the conversation piece was appropriate to their less than aristocratic homes.

Subject Matter:

This group portrait, which exemplifies the genre of painting known as the "conversation piece," depicts members of the family of Walter Edwards of London in their garden. Walter stands in the center of the group behind his wife Mary, daughter of Richard Freeman of Batsford, Gloucestershire. William, Walter's brother, stands to the right behind an older woman in a wheeled chair, possibly their mother. Walter's sons stand on the left apart from the adults and hold a shell and parrot, objects that evoke the preoccupations of children. Great care was taken in this painting to capture the likenesses of the sitters and their relationship, as well as to convey their status and refinement through the meticulous rendition of their property and dress.

Physical Description:

Six figures appear in a formal garden landscape. On the right a pair of men in powdered wigs stand behind two women, one seated in a wheelchair, before an elaborate portico. A pair of boys, also sporting wigs, stand on the left, partly screened by a fountain. One of the boys holds a shell and the other carries a parrot. A small pool extends through the middle ground behind the figures and draws attention to the setting and the distant obelisk visible above the trees.

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