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