Picture the Fourth.
A short time ago I was standing the the Georgian wing of Hampton Court, gazing at one of the most incongruous paintings I have seen in a while.
The two characters in it looked like two men you might see today in suits and ties. One had the air of a middle ranking civil servant, the other the glee, and possibly, yes, avarice, of a city trader.They were counting money in the most businesslike way but the painter’s perspective seemed bent on using the picture for a purpose. Why else would the picture be called: The Misers?
It is part of the royal collection, and is reputed to have hung on the wall of a Georgian king; but this painting is also part of a wider and more motley bunch of canvasware. It seems that since the 1440s, these men have been being painted in one guise or another under the same title. There are many misers, as you will see if you skim through the slides at the base of this post.
Each painting or mezzotint is different: some are cartoon-caricatures of greed, others painted in gorgeous detail and lusciously lit. I feel I know the one on the left, so utterly convincingly is he portrayed. I even hear his tone of voice.
I shall not ask why a king might enjoy the tale of two money- scrabblers on his wall.
The question is this: why was society so preoccupied with a pair of men doing a little accounting? Are they saying Greed Is Bad, or warding off their own avarice with caricatures?
Myself, I want nothing more than to be a fly on the wall. I think the light and the detail make this an absorbing and rather wonderful portrayal.
But I yearn to hear what they are saying.