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.
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