Francis Wheatley was born in London, the son of a master tailor. He studied first at Shipley's Academy, and in 1769 enrolled in the new Royal Academy schools. He was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy in 1790 and became a full academician in 1791. He primarily produced small-scale, full-length portraits, but also worked in other genres. His best known work is the Cries of London, a series of fourteen paintings—exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1792 and 1795—and twelve related engravings depicting merchants selling their wares.
Nothing is known of the family depicted in this “conversation piece,” or small-scale, informal group portrait; the title is traditional. The surname “Saithwaite” is common in Lancashire, and Wheatley might possibly have encountered the family during an excursion to the northwest of England in 1784. The broad, confident handling of paint and the types of clothing, furniture, and architecture depicted here all support a date in the mid-1780s.
Mrs. Saithwaite’s splendid hat, with its ostrich feathers and ribbons, recalls one worn by the actress Sarah Siddons (1755–1831) in a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (ca. 1783–85, National Gallery, London). Wheatley depicted similar hats often during the 1780s. In one example, a drawing entitled A Lover’s Anger (private collection), he not only repeated the hat and shoes worn by Mrs. Saithwaite but also draped the figure’s shawl over a corresponding chair and placed her within a similar room, distinguished by a carved mantelpiece supporting a vase. A related engraving bears the publication date of August 29, 1786.
At first glance, the vase on the mantelpiece seems to be a piece of “Black Basalt” (also called “Egyptian black” or “Etruscan ware”), a refined stoneware colored with cobalt and manganese oxides, invented by Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) in 1768; however, the painting's vase seems to have no exact match among ceramics of the period and may, instead, be made of wood, a less expensive alternative to stoneware but one that would nevertheless have served to indicate the owners’ sophisticated, classicizing taste.
"Turkey carpets" were popular in British homes during this period and became a ubiquitous component of the conversation piece, found in paintings by virtually every practitioner of the genre. The example here can be identified as a medallion Usak carpet, a style (named for its place of earliest manufacture) featuring a large central medallion with projecting finials on a patterned field containing additional medallions. From its relatively coarse design, the Saithwaites’ carpet can be identified as an eighteenth-century example manufactured in Western Anatolia, rather than a British product in the Turkish style.
[2011; adapted from Barker 2005]