Thomas Gainsborough
The Rev. John Chafy Playing the Violoncello in a Landscape c.1750–2

Artwork details

Thomas Gainsborough 1727–1788
The Rev. John Chafy Playing the Violoncello in a Landscape
Date c.1750–2
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 749 x 609 mm
frame: 940 x 812 x 85 mm
Acquisition Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 1984
Not on display


The Revd John Chafy (1719-82) was the eldest son of the Revd John Chafy, later Rector of Purse Caundle, Dorset, and his wife Elizabeth Corbyn or Corben. He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he was admitted as a Scholar in October 1738. He was elected a Fellow in 1741 and gained his Bachelor of Arts in 1742; on 13 June that year he was ordained a deacon at Lincoln. Soon afterwards he was made curate of Chatham and, in 1749, curate of Great Bricett in Suffolk, situated halfway between Sudbury and Ipswich. He probably continued to reside at Cambridge as a Fellow of King's until plans of marriage caused him to renounce his Fellowship and seek a better living. On 4 January 1752 his college presented him with the livings of Broad Chalke and Alveston in Wiltshire and in August that year he married Ann Gisborne, described as 'a very accomplished lady with a fortune of £10,000', six years his senior, and owner of a personal estate at Hilton in Derbyshire. They had no children, and after his wife's death in 1766 his niece Ann Littlejohn came to keep house for him. In his will (PCC April 1782, Salisbury, 170) her uncle left her 'all (if any yet remained) of my Wife's wearing apparel and her trinkets', his gold watch with seals, all his plate, £500 and £10 for mourning, and 'my picture of myself playing on the Violoncello, which was drawn by Gainsborough'. Soon after his wife's death Chafy moved to Salisbury, where he was eventually appointed Prebendary of Stratford in 1780. He lived in a fine brick house in the Close (still extant as No.26) until his death on 8 February 1782.

Circumstantial and stylistic evidence suggests that Gainsborough, who had returned from London to his native Sudbury by 1748, painted Chafy shortly before the latter left Suffolk in early I752. As there does not appear to have been a portrait of Chafy's wife, the likelihood is that the portrait was completed before his marriage. Chafy may have met the artist on visits to his parish at Great Bricett, or to the busy county town of Ipswich nearby. They also shared an interest in music. Gainsborough is known to have played several instruments with 'native skill' and was an active member of the Ipswich Musical Club. Chafy's musical talents are also well attested. The author of Gesta Chaforum recalls being told by Chafy's niece Martha Chafy that her uncle 'had an extraordinary gift for music, 12 lessons sufficing to make him proficient, which probably accounts for his being painted with his violoncello' (Rev. W.K.W. Chafy, Gesta Chaforum, 1910, p.71). In his will Chafy made arrangements for the disposal of two harpsichords, and left 'his violoncello and case' (presumably the one shown in this painting) and music books to his neighbour Henry Jacob.

Chafy is shown holding the bow with his palm down, in one of the three then accepted ways of bowing the cello. The cello was at that time a relatively new and still evolving instrument; it was usual to rest it on a peg, but in its early days it was sometimes held, as here, between the knees like a viola-da-gamba. Gainsborough almost certainly knew the famous print of 1731 by Tardieu after or based on Watteau, showing the artist at his easel and (possibly) his friend and patron Julienne with a viola, pensively communing with nature in a park. It was used as the frontispiece to one of the volumes of prints after Watteau's works which were published by Julienne from 1726 onwards and which would have been well-known in the artistic circles in which the young Gainsborough moved in London in the 1740s.

The overcast sky and ivy-clad urn in this portrait strike a melancholy note, perhaps alluding to the sitter's imminent departure from Suffolk and carefree bachelorhood. The temple behind has a niche with a statue holding a lyre, the attribute not only of Apollo, God of the Arts, but also of Terpsichore, the Muse of dancing and song, and Erato, the Muse of lyric and love poetry. This may be an allusion to Chafy's impending marriage, or perhaps an homage to his musical talents.

Further reading:
E.K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, p.59 no.127
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, pp.68-9, reproduced

Terry Riggs
February 1998