Having trained under Francis Hayman, Dance travelled to Rome in 1754, where he would remain for nine years. Here, he established himself as a portraitist while simultaneously pursuing a career as a history painter, beginning his first major Classical subject, The Death of Virginia (now lost) in 1759. By 1762, Dance was assisting the great Roman portraitist Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (1709-1787), an association which prompted the English artist's use of a brighter palette while bringing introductions to a wider and more prestigious group of patrons, in the main wealthy English travellers visiting the city as part of the Grand Tour.
This group portrait was most likely painted during Dance’s Roman period, utilising a format and scale similar to other conversation pieces painted by the artist during this period, like that of James Grant of Grant, John Mytton, the Hon. Thomas Robinson, and Thomas Wynne (c. 1760, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art). It depicts a group of Grand Tourists, gathered around a statue showing a Boy strangling a goose, a Roman marble sculpture which existed in several versions (see Paris, Musée du Louvre and Munich, Glyptothek) following a lost Greek bronze attributed to the Hellenistic sculptor Boethos of Chalcedon (active 2nd century BC). Beyond is a view of the dome of St Peter’s.
The fashionably dressed man in a red frockcoat at the centre of the composition has tentatively been identified as the Mr Elliot, a Scottish gentleman who arrived in Rome in 1755 with his wife (the richly dressed lady, seated at the left; see J. Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, New Haven and London, 1997, p. 336). The couple are known to have moved in artistic circles there, with the architect Robert Adam describing Mrs Elliot as ‘a good-natured, clever little woman’, and commenting on her husband’s penchant for ‘genteelity’. The Elliots entertained other British expatriates in Rome and were intimate with the Scottish portraitist, Allan Ramsay and his wife. Adam also reported that following their weekly supper parties, guests would often take a walk through the city in the company of Abbé Peter Grant (d. 1784). A Scottish priest, Grant had resided in Rome since 1737 as an agent for the Scottish Catholic mission. His busy social life, numerous connections and knowledge of the city’s history established him as a key contact for British travellers to Rome and few arrived there without letters of introduction to him. Grant was intimately acquainted with painters working in the city as well and is known to have been acquainted with Dance himself, as well as with Gavin Hamilton, Allan Ramsay and Angelica Kauffmann. The sombrely dressed figure in black at the left of Dance’s Elliot ‘conversation’ can, in fact, be identified as Grant, and relates closely to a drawing of the Abbé by Ramsay made in circa 1755 (Edinburgh, Scottish National Portrait Gallery).