Sir Peter Lely

Boy Playing a Jew’s Harp

c.1648

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1410 x 1029 mm
frame: 1675 x 1310 x 120 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Art Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund) 1966
Reference
T00884

Summary

This work, along with the Man Playing a Pipe (Tate T00885) and three other paintings by Lely that depict people playing musical instruments, was first recorded in the collection of the Earls of Craven at Combe Abbey in Warwickshire in 1739, at which time they were all attributed to the Haarlem painter, Frans Hals (1580 or 1585-1666). In the mid-twentieth century they were recognised as being characteristic of the early work of Sir Peter Lely. The other three works were A Girl Playing a Theorbo-Lute, A Man Playing a Violin and A Young Man Playing an Eleven-course Lute (subsequently sold, Christie's London 20 November 1992, as lots 6-8).

The Jew's harp - the name, which is recorded as early as the sixteenth century, is apparently a corruption of the name 'jaws' harp' - is a small, metal bow-shaped instrument with a tongue. It is played by placing it between the teeth of the upper and lower jaws and striking the metal tongue. It was a cheap and simple way of making music.

Lely himself had trained in the Dutch city of Haarlem. Images showing half- or three-quarter-length figures playing musical instruments became popular with the Netherlandish artists who had visited Italy and had been influenced by similar paintings by the celebrated Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) and his followers. They included the Utrecht artist Dirck van Baburen (c.1595-1624), whose own Young Man Playing a Jew's Harp, 1621 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht, reproduced in Buijsen and Grijp, p.130, fig.1) is one of the earliest Dutch examples. From the early 1620s onwards, starting in Utrecht, such works became increasingly widespread in the Netherlands and were produced, for instance, by the Haarlem painters Frans Hals and Judith Leyster (1609-60). The sitters were often shown in fanciful costumes that purported to be peasant dress.

Sir Peter Lely was born to a Dutch family in Soest, Westphalia in 1618. Having trained in Haarlem he moved at the beginning of the 1640s to England, where the Civil War was in progress. There, initially, he painted narrative pictures showing figures in a landscape, often on classical subjects, of the kind for which there was a considerable market in the Netherlands. Some of these included musical elements. In London, Lely had the opportunity to see many examples of the work of the recently deceased Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) whose portraits had transformed the public image of Charles I's court. The market for art in Britain at this period was almost entirely for portraiture, and Lely increasingly concentrated on that field, absorbing the influence of van Dyck and steadily lightening and brightening his own palette. At the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Lely was to become the principal court portrait-painter.

Further reading:

Oliver Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618-80, National Portrait Galley, exhibition catalogue, London 1978
Edwin Buijsen and Louis Peter Grijp (eds), Music and Painting in the Golden Age, The Hague and Zwolle, 1994
Oliver Millar and Diana Dethloff, 'Sir Peter Lely', in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, vol. 19, pp.119-25

Karen Hearn
April 2001

Display caption

This painting comes from a set of five pictures of people playing musical instruments. Painted early in Lely’s English career, it is probably a generalised and idealised image of a shepherd boy rather than a portrait of a specific individual.

The jew’s harp consists of a metal ‘tongue’ fixed to a frame: the boy plays it by holding the frame between his teeth and striking the tongue with his finger. Musicians were often the subjects of Dutch paintings of this period, particularly in Haarlem where Lely had been trained.

Gallery label, April 2005

Catalogue entry

Sir Peter Lely 1618–1680

Boy Playing a Jew’s Harp
c.1648
Oil on canvas
141 x 1029 mm
Presented by the National Art Collections Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund) 1966
T00884

Ownership history
In the collection of the Earls of Craven, Coombe Abbey, Warwickshire by 1739; by descent to Cornelia, Countess of Craven from whose Trustees purchased for presentation to Tate 1966.

Exhibition history
Angels and Urchins, Kenwood, London, and Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham 1998.

References
Thomas Pennant, The Journey from Chester to London, London 1811, p.247 (as by Hals); C.H. Collins Baker, Lely and the Stuart Portrait Painters, vol.1, London 1912, p.196 (as by Soest); Paget Toynbee, ‘Horace Walpole’s Journals of Visits to Country Seats, &c.’, Walpole Society, vol.16, 1928, pp.10, 63 (noted in 1768, as by Hals); Tate Gallery Report 1966–7, London 1968, pp.16–17; Oliver Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618–80, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Galley, London 1978, pp.10, 41; Martin Butlin, Aspects of British Painting 1550–1800, Houston 1988, p.38.

Along with the Man Playing a Pipe (Tate T00885), this work and three other paintings by Lely of people playing musical instruments were first recorded at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire in the inventory drawn up after the death of William, 3rd Baron Craven (1700–1739) at which time they were all attributed to the Haarlem painter, Frans Hals (1580 or 1585–1666).1 Visiting this house in September 1768, Horace Walpole noted ‘a Lady, and three [sic] Musicians, by Francis Halls’.2 They seem subsequently to have been attributed to Gerard Soest,3 but in the mid-twentieth century they were recognised by Sir Oliver Millar as being characteristic of the early work of Sir Peter Lely. The other three works are A Girl Playing a Theorbo-Lute, A Man Playing a Violin and A Young Man Playing an Eleven-course Lute.4

Nothing is known of the circumstances in which this group of paintings was produced. William, 1st Baron and Earl of Craven (1608–1697), as well as having his own collection, held paintings in trust from Prince Rupert, son of Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596–1662) for his mistress Margaret Hughes and their daughter Ruperta.5

It is not clear whether some or all of this group were intended to be portraits, or whether they were to be viewed as genre images of anonymous music-makers. The latter is likely to be the case with the present work. The Jew’s harp – the name, which is recorded as early as the sixteenth century, is apparently a corruption of the name ‘jaws’ harp’ – is a small, metal bow-shaped instrument with a tongue. It is played by placing it between the teeth of the upper and lower jaws and striking the metal tongue. It was a cheap and simple way of making music.

Images showing half- or three-quarter-length figures playing musical instruments became popular with the Netherlandish artists who had visited Italy and who had been influenced by similar paintings by Caravaggio (1571–1610) and his followers. They included the Utrecht artist Dirck van Baburen (c.1595–1624), whose own Young Man Playing a Jew’s Harp 1621 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht) is one of the earliest Dutch examples.6 From the early 1620s onwards, starting in Utrecht, such works became increasingly widespread in the Netherlands, and were produced, for instance, by the Haarlem painters Frans Hals and Judith Leyster (1609–1660). The sitters were often shown in fanciful costumes that purported to be peasant dress.

Sir Peter Lely was born to a Dutch family in Soest, Westphalia, in 1618. Having trained in Haarlem he moved at the beginning of the 1640s to England, where the Civil War was in progress. There, initially, he painted narrative pictures, often showing figures in a landscape, of the kind for which there was a considerable market in the Netherlands. Some of these included musical elements, such as the signed and dated Music Lesson 1654, in which a young woman plays a five-stringed guitar while a young man leans towards her in song (collection of Lord Dulverton),7 and the so-called Concert (Courtauld Gallery, London).8 In London, Lely had the opportunity to see many examples of the work of the recently deceased Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) whose portraits had transformed the public image of Charles I’s court. The market for art in Britain at this period was almost entirely for portraiture, and Lely increasingly concentrated on that field, absorbing the influence of van Dyck and steadily lightening and brightening his own palette. At the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Lely was to become the principal court portrait painter.9

Karen Hearn
May 2006

Notes

1 ‘Five Italian Musicians by Francis Halls’ were recorded on the staircase next to the billiard room at Coombe Abbey in the inventory dated 17 September 1739, cited in Oliver Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618–80, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Galley, London 1978, p.41.
2 See Paget Toynbee, ‘Horace Walpole’s Journals of Visits to Country Seats, &c.’, Walpole Society, vol.16, 1928.
3 See C.H. Collins Baker, Lely and the Stuart Portrait Painters, vol.1, London 1912.
4 Sold Sotheby’s, London, 27 November 1968 (83–5) where purchased by Dr Daniel McLean McDonald, by whose executors subsequently sold Christie’s, London, 20 November 1992 (6–8). It is possible that a sixth image of a musician by Lely, A Man Playing the Violin, now in the Collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Texas, may once have been part of the same group. See Martin Butlin, Aspects of British Painting 1550–1800, Houston 1988.
5 When Walpole visited the Craven collection in 1768, most of the pictures that he particularly noted were portraits relating to Elizabeth of Bohemia’s family. See Toynbee 1928.
6 Reproduced in Edwin Buijsen and Louis Peter Grijp (eds.), Music and Painting in the Golden Age, The Hague and Zwolle 1994, p.130, fig.1.
7 Millar 1978, p.48, no.24, reproduced.
8 Ibid., p.40, no.11, reproduced.
9 Oliver Millar and Diana Dethloff, ‘Sir Peter Lely’, in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, vol.19, London and New York 1996, pp.119–25.

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