Catalogue entry

Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788

T03895 The Rev. John Chafy Playing the Violoncello in a Landscape c.1750-2

Oil on canvas 749 x 609 (29 1/2 x 24)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the National Art-Collections Fund 1984
Prov: Painted for the sitter and bequeathed by him to his niece Ann Littlejohn (later Lady Borrough); descended in the Chafy family until anon. sale, Sotheby's 5 July 1984 (269, repr. in col.) £90,000 bt Leggatt for Tate Gallery
Exh: On loan to Birmingham City Art Gallery 1962-84
Lit: Rev. W.K.W. Chafy, Gesta Chaforum, 1910, pp.69-71, repr. opp. p.72; E.K. Waterhouse, 'Preliminary Check List of Portraits by Thomas Gainsborough', Walpole Society, vol.33, 1950, p.18; E.K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, p.59 no.127; Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541- 1857, VI (Salisbury Diocese), 1986, p.74; B. Allen, 'Watteau and his Imitators in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England' in Antoine Watteau, le peintre, son temps et sa légende, Paris and Geneva 1987, pp.259- 67, figs.16, 17

The Rev. John Chafy (1719-82) is shown seated against a tree on a grassy bank in a park-like landscape; behind him, against an overcast sky, is an ivy-clad urn and a small temple with a classical figure. On the right, beyond a stretch of water, the view opens onto a pastoral landscape with a square white country house nestling among the hills in the distance. The figure in the niche holds 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 ambiguity allows the viewer to speculate agreeably on whether the portrait is conceived as an homage to Chafy's musical talents, an elegy to the impending end of his bachelorhood, or a celebration of his future expectations of love and a gentlemanly rural living, or all of these together.

The sitter was the eldest son of the Rev. John Chafy, later Rector of Purse Caundle, Dorset, and his wife Elizabeth Corbyn or Corben. He was baptised at Lillington, Dorset, on 18 February 1719, when his father was curate there. He was educated at Eton and Kings College, Cambridge, where he was admitted as a Scholar in October 1738. He was elected a Fellow in 1741 and gained his BA in 1742; on 13 June that year he was ordained a deacon at Lincoln. Soon afterwards he was made curate of Chatham and served as a naval chaplain. In 1749 his college presented him with the modest living of Great Bricett in Suffolk, situated halfway between Sudbury and Ipswich. This may have been more a means of improving his income than a serious step in his career, for there is no evidence that he actually lived there. He probably continued to reside at Cambridge as a Fellow of Kings 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 (worth £164 a year, according to the Ipswich Journal of 11 January I752) 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'. Ann Littlejohn married Judge Sir James Borrough in I783, but the painting descended in the Chafy family.

Soon after his wife's death Chafy, who by now had accumulated several good livings, including that of his late father, moved to Salisbury, where he was eventually appointed Prebendary of Stratford on 13 September 1780. In 1770 he built himself a fine brick house in the Close (still extant as No.26), where he lived until his death on 8 February 1782. He was buried at Broad Chalke on 11 February, beside his wife (for details of his monument see Sir Richard Colt Hoare, The Modern History of South Wiltshire, 1830, IV, p.149).

Circumstantial and stylistic evidence suggests that Gainsborough, who had returned from London to his native Sudhury in 1748, painted Chafy shortly before the latter left East Anglia 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; the fairly fluid handling of the paint, on the other hand, suggests a date after 1750. Even if Chafy did not reside at Great Bricett (Bricett registers are very patchy before 1764) he may have met the artist on occasional visits to his parish or to the busy county town of Ipswich nearby.

A further link may have been their mutual devotion to music: Gainsborough is known to have played several instruments with 'native skill' and was an active member of the Ipswich Musical Club (for the best survey of this see Lindsay Stainton, Gainsborough and his Musical Friends, exh. cat., The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood 1977). Chafy's musical talents are also well attested, not only by this portrait: the author of Gesta Chaforum recalls (p.71) 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'. 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, son of his old friend Dr Jacob.

Chafy is shown holding the bow with his palm down, in one of the three then accepted ways of bowing the cello, close to the 'Italian manner', described as 'la seconde maniere' in chapter 2 of Michael Corette's Méthode ... pour apprendre le violoncelle (Paris 1741), one of the earliest published treatises on the subject. 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. The latter has more sloping shoulders and is invariably played with the bow held in the upturned palm: a fine example is Lancret's 'Joueur de basse' (repr. G. Wildenstein, Lancret, Paris 1924, fig.152), a painting that shares with T03895 a lyrical mood expressed in the solitary pursuit of music in a pastoral setting, although it is unlikely that Gainsborough would have been familiar with this particular example, which does not appear to have been engraved till much later. On the other hand he 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 (Allen 1987, fig. 17). 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 Gainshorough moved in London in the 1740s.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.68-9