Coming Down to Dinner by John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903). 1876. Oil on canvas, 124.1 x 163 cm. Accession number 1905.22, bequeathed by Henry Lee, 1905. Collection: Manchester Art Gallery, kindly made available to be shared and re-used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence. Commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee.

This is one of Horsley's costume paintings, showing what looks like a Jacobean family and guests coming down the stairs into a dining room where household staff are waiting to conduct them to the table and serve them. A young princeling is the centre of attention, with, apparently, his parents, a priest and others behind him, and a boy pointing at him from inside the room. Notice the black servant who seems still to be dusting the high-backed chair on the right, which looks almost like a throne, but in which a little dog is seated! Another dog with a blue bow and loose lead is looking up playfully at the young nobleman in the middle of the painting. Helen Valentine actually names this out as one of the paintings that shows Horsley's "extensive knowledge of the work of artists such as Pieter de Hooch": it certainly uses the entry of the guests from a crowded stairway into the large dining hall to dramatic effect, especially with the light shining in behind them from the window.

The composition invites interpretation, but we cannot know the story behind it. In the end, the individuals portrayed are variously engaged in their own imagined world. In that sense, Horsley's highly finished painting might be called a period conversation piece.


Valentine, Helen. "Horsley, John Callcott (1817–1903), painter." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 18 April 2018.

Created 19 April 2018