Arthur Devis, who was born in Preston, Lancashire, was one of the principal exponents of the 'conversation-piece', a genre of portraiture which became extremely fashionable in England in the 1720s and 1730s. This large scale conversation-piece, which is dateable to circa 1743, is one of Devis's most ambitious and successful works from the critical early phase of his career when, as Ellen D'Oench (op.cit.) notes, he 'developed a form of portraiture that shaped his work for the rest of his career.'
The Crewe family had risen to prominence in the seventeenth century; Sir Randolph Crewe (1558-1646) was Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Chief Justice of the Court of The Kings Bench (1624-6) and built the family seat Crewe Hall, Cheshire. This portrait shows three generations of the family. Slightly to the left of the centre, seated at the table, is John Offley Crewe (d. 1749), the family's patriarch. John Offley Crewe had succeeded to the estates of his maternal grandfather, John Crewe (1626-1684), Sir Randolph Crewe's grandson, assuming the name Crewe by act of Parliament in 1708. His wife, Sarah, the daughter of Morgan Price, of Nantgwared, Breconshire, is seated to the left of him. Gathered around them are their four sons and wider family. Their eldest son and heir, John C. Crewe (d. 1752), stands to the very left of the composition, leaning on the back of his mother's chair, a position echoed by his younger brother the Rev. Randulf Crewe, Rector of Bartholmey and Warmington, who is shown leaning on the back of his father's chair. On the other side of the room are their brothers; Charles, standing with his young niece Sarah (John C. Crewe's eldest daughter) in his arms, and the Rev. Joseph Crewe, standing in the background in profile. To the left of the composition, standing close to his grandmother, holding a cane, is John Crewe, (1742-1829) John C. Crewe's eldest son and heir, who was to represent Cheshire in Parliament from 1768 until 1802 and was created 1st Baron Crewe in 1806. John C. Crewe's wife Anne, the daughter of Richard Shuttleworth of Gawthorp, Lancashire, stands to the right of the composition facing her brother-in-law. The other figures in the portrait are less readily identifiable, but would seem likely to be Mrs Shuttleworth, Anne Crewe's mother, and one of her sisters (seated beside each other at the table in the centre of the portrait). While the figure with the long wig, seated to their right, may well be Anne Crewe's father Mr Shuttleworth. It has been suggested that the picture may commemorate the baptism of John Crewe's daughter Sarah.
The term 'conversation piece', which did not gain wide currency in England until the late 1720s, was characterised by several distinct features which this group portrait epitomises. The portrait is both informal and intimate by contrast to the more conventional tradition of British portraiture. The sitters are shown full-length, but reduced in scale, and are set back within the pictorial space, which gives a much greater emphasis to the interior in which the family are placed, allowing for an element of informal narrative, which gives the picture its realistic and informal family atmosphere. Among the largest conversation-pieces that Devis ever executed, it shows the artist's early mastery in composing such a large number of figures into a convincing and balanced group. Devis displays an attention to architectural detail and an interest in furniture that is characteristic of much of his best work. The Crewe family is shown in an oak floored gallery, designed in the George II Roman fashion, with a stuccoed ceiling, flowered in mosaiced compartments and stone coloured walls, set with shell-headed niches and with Italianate landscape paintings, set in palm flowered frames above the door entablatures. They are grouped around a drum-top china-table, which is laid with East India Company tea equipage of Chinese blue and white porcelain with a stone-ware pot. The delicate colours and textures of the sitter's varied costumes are also brilliantly conveyed. The Italianate capriccio landscape visible above the door is reminiscent of the type of Italian landscapes that Devis specialised in copying when he worked in Tillemans' studio. Interestingly, a very similar capriccio signed by Devis (of horizontal rather than vertical format) is included in this sale as lot 205.