Sir Peter Lely 1618–1680
Boy Playing a Jew’s Harp
Oil on canvas
141 x 1029 mm
Presented by the National Art Collections Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund) 1966
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.
Angels and Urchins, Kenwood, London, and Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham 1998.
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). Visiting this house in September 1768, Horace Walpole noted ‘a Lady, and three [sic] Musicians, by Francis Halls’. They seem subsequently to have been attributed to Gerard Soest, 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.
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.
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. 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), and the so-called Concert (Courtauld Gallery, London). 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.