Thomas Hickey 1741–1824
A Girl Leaning against a Piano
Oil paint on canvas
908 x 705 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1960
…purchased by Knoedler & Co in Berlin in 1928; with Knoedler & Co in New York until 1960, when sold to Agnew’s, London and purchased from them by the Friends of the Tate Gallery, who presented it to the Tate Gallery 1960.
This portrait of a fashionably-dressed young girl leaning against a piano and holding sheet music in her left hand is undated and unsigned, but is accepted as a work by the Irish painter Thomas Hickey. Although her identity has not been established, the sitter appears to be around ten or eleven years old. She wears a broad–brimmed hat and bows on short sleeves which together are suggestive of a version of the shepherdess or milkmaid costumes adopted in fancy dress (and a feature of female portraiture since the seventeenth century). The sheet of music she holds is inscribed at the top ‘Marlbr[ouk]’ with the last three letters apparently repainted.
Hickey was born and trained in Dublin and spent time in Rome and London before establishing some reputation as a portrait painter in the fashionable spa town of Bath in 1776–9. He was one of a number of portraitists who came to the city around this time hoping to take advantage of the market created by the departure from Bath in 1774 of the eminently successful Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88). Although Hickey was able to paint portraits of many of Bath’s civic elite, his reputation was mixed. One contemporary noted that ‘his flesh is still weak . . . and is coarsely and ill executed’.1 He was subsequently alluded to as a ‘Painter of Subaltern [subordinate] rank in London and in Bath’.2 In fact, by May 1779 Hickey, described as ‘Painter, Dealer and Chapman’, was declared bankrupt and imprisoned at the Fleet Prison in London.3 Thus may be explained his decision subsequently to relocate to India, permission for which migration was granted by the East India Company in March 1780. Hickey sailed for India in July 1780 but his ship was captured by the French and Spanish en route. Released as a non-combatant, he found his way to Lisbon in Portugal where he was able to run a successful portrait practice until finally travelling on to India in March 1784. The present portrait was dated to c.1780 at the time of its acquisition by the Tate, apparently on stylistic grounds and with the ostensible supporting evidence of the dating of the sheet music (discussed below). The assumption was therefore put in place that it belonged to the period he spent in Portugal.4 The picture’s continental provenance (it is first documented as being purchased in Berlin about 1928 and was, according to its vendor in 1960, once in France) presumably indicated to curators that it may have had European origins, but there is no supporting evidence either in documentary form or in the imagery of the painting to confirm this.5
At the time of the painting’s acquisition, Tate curators consulted Sir Anthony Carey Lewis KBE (1915–83), then Professor in the Department of Music, University of Birmingham, who noted that while the sheet music was only indicative, the legible lettering ‘Malbr[ouk]’ allowed it to be identified with the tune “Malbrook s’en va t’en guerre”’. Lewis noted that ‘according to the British Museum Catalogue of Printed Music, an edition of the song was brought out in Paris round about 1780, which would seem to accord with the dates which you mention’.6 The proposed dating of the work to around 1780 appeared, then, to be confirmed. However, the publication history of ‘Malbrook’ may not be as conclusive as was suggested then, opening up the question of the dating of Hickey's painting.7 The tune, whose title was spelt with numerous variations in the eighteenth century (including Malrboug, Malbrouk, Malbrourk, and Marlborough), was extremely popular, with multiple editions published in Paris and London apparently from the 1770s onwards although with a rash of French editions around 1783–4. The song title referred to the English statesman and soldier John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722) whose famous victories in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) established him as a national hero. Nicholas Bell of the British Library has noted that the sheet music in Hickey’s painting appears to be a folio edition laid out for piano, ‘with the music in pairs of staves linked with a brace at the left’, a format more likely to be printed in London (the earlier French editions are in a much smaller format than appears here).8 The dating of these early editions is, however, generally very approximate, and it seems likely that there were London editions in the 1770s. While a London edition of this popular song might quite as easily have reached Lisbon as a French edition, neither does there seem to be support from the evidence of the sheet music’s appearance for dating the work so precisely to 1780. A revised dating to c.1776–1784, encompassing thereby his periods in Bath and in Lisbon, is now proposed.
This was the first work by Hickey to enter the Tate collection. The ownership history does not extend back beyond 1928, when it was purchased in Berlin by the dealers Knoedler. The attribution to Hickey appears to have been proposed at that time by Thomas Bodkin, then Director of the National Gallery of Ireland.9