Walton was primarily a painter of portraits and conversation pieces. His present-day reputation rests largely on the small group of highly original genre subjects he produced, mostly between 1776 and 1780, of which this is one. It is one of his most attractive yet complex works and defies rigid categorisation: it is at once a 'fancy picture', in that it is designed to please and entertain, a genre subject of everyday London life, and a political satire.
With its contemplative, informal intimacy, A Girl Buying a Ballad is close in feel to Walton's A Girl Plucking a Turkey of 1776 (Tate N02870). However, while the earlier work is clearly influenced by French genre painting of the period, the present work is more original in conception. In its subject-matter its immediate precedents are works by earlier artists practising in Britain, such as Phillip Mercier (1689?- 1760), who was responsible for introducing the 'fancy picture' here.
The painting portrays a young girl, selecting a printed ballad from an old street vendor seated on a stool. Walton has chosen pictorial archetypes for the characters here in order to make generalising contrasts of youth and old age, or innocence versus care-worn experience. The picture provides an interesting documentary record of urban life of the period that anticipates Francis Wheatley's Cries of London (published as engravings 1793-7) produced over a decade later.
The picture's present title is Walton's own and the one it bore when first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778. It was engraved in 1780 as The Pretty Maid Buying a Love-Song and in 1785 as The Young Maid and Old Sailor. The clue to a deeper understanding of the picture lies in the small engraved portrait to the right of the ballad seller's head. The detail is emphasised by the ballad seller's broom, which leans against it. In the painting, this small portrait engraving is inscribed 'HOWE', whereas in the 1785 engraving, the inscription has been altered to 'Admiral Rodney'.
The portrait can be identified as that of General Sir William Howe (1729-1814), engraved in 1777 and published with a matching likeness of his elder bother, the Admiral Richard, 1st Earl Howe (1726-99), just visible on the far right of the composition. The two Howe brothers were joint commanders-in-chief of the British forces in North America but complained about governmental interference in relation to the war and resigned their commissions. It is probable that the better-informed visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1778 would have interpreted Walton's painting as a topical reference to the controversy concerning the Howe brothers and the American War of Independence (1775-83).
By 1785, the print publishers presumably required a more up-to-date reference and replaced Howe's name with that of Admiral Rodney (1719-92), although the image was not altered. Whereas the reference to General Howe in the painting was probably intended to add a contemporary political message to an otherwise straightforward genre subject, the introduction of Rodney seems to have been a more overt satire on the character himself, indicated by the print title's reference to the 'old sailor'. The marketing of the print in this way and its transformation from an entertaining 'fancy' subject into one with a more saleable satirical edge, gives a fascinating insight into the relationship between high art and popular culture in the late eighteenth century.
Dr M. Rajnal, Henry Walton, exhibition catalogue, Norwich Castle Museum 1963, no.11, reproduced
Martin Postle, Angels and Urchins: the Fancy picture in 18th-century British Art, exhibition catalogue, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham 1998, pp.20, 81, reproduced fig.41
Evelyne Bell, 'The Life and Work of Henry Walton', Gainsborough's House Review 1998-9, cat.192
Henry Walton 1746–1813
A Girl Buying a Ballad
Oil paint on canvas
921 x 717 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 2000
… reportedly owned by Henry Bingham Mildmay (1828–1905); with his son Francis Bingham, 1st Baron Mildmay of Flete (1861–1947) in 1934; his son Anthony Bingham, 2nd Baron Mildmay of Flete (1909–1950); his sister, the Hon. Helen Winifred Mildmay-White (died 1997); accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax from the estate of the Hon. Helen Winifred Mildmay-White in 1999 and allocated to the Tate Gallery, London 2000.
This small–scale painting of an apparently everyday street scene falls into the category of ‘genre’ painting, or ‘fancy picture’, which in the eighteenth century constituted a commercially successful form of art in painting and print. Such images purported to show scenes of ordinary life, although always contrived to offer sentimental, comical, erotic or simply ornamental pleasures. In this image, a fashionably dressed young woman, probably intended as a servant, approaches an old and poorly dressed ballad-seller. His wares, consisting mainly of printed songsheets but with a pair of printed portraits visible to the far right, are hung up on the bare brick wall behind him (thus identifying him as a ‘pinner-up’ or ‘wall-song seller’).1 The woman is shown lifting one of these sheets as if to examine it more closely, and is reaching with her other hand for her purse. The ballad seller is seated on a low stool and supports himself with his right hand, which rests on a box. In his right hand he holds his hat, upturned, in a gesture conventionally associated with the act of begging.
The ‘fancy picture’ had its roots in seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish art. Although such small, finely executed paintings of peasant life, ordinary urban scenes, or of servants or children, were classed as among the lower ranks of art in academic art theory, they were extensively collected and admired by connoisseurs in eighteenth-century Britain. Reproduced in print, these images reached a much larger audience. By mid-century several prominent artists working in Britain were peculiarly identified with the genre, notably the French-born Philip Mercier (?1689–1760). Many other artists undertook such scenes as commercial ventures or with an eye on public exhibition, including Johan Zoffany (1733–1810), Henry Walton’s master.
A Girl Buying a Ballad was first exhibited publicly at the annual exhibition of contemporary art organised by the Royal Academy in London in 1778. It was probably painted in the period immediately before the exhibition with that prominent and prestigious annual display in mind. Walton was working in London at the time and submitted a number of small-scale portraits and genre scenes for exhibition through the 1770s when he was apparently trying to establish himself as a professional artist. He subsequently moved to Suffolk, where he had purchased an estate and lived like a country gentleman, running a portrait practice serving the gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk and dealing in art apparently in an only semi-professional capacity. Other examples of his genre paintings from the 1770s include A Girl Plucking a Turkey (Tate N02870), which had been exhibited at the Society of Artists in London in 1776, The Silver Age (shown at the Royal Academy in 1777; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven); and The Cherry Barrow (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779; private collection). These were all clearly based on the model of works of Johan Zoffany (1733¿–1810) in whose studio in London Walton had worked and studied as a young man in the late 1760s. A contemporary of Walton’s later noted that such pictures ‘are decided imitations of his [Zoffany’s] style and manner, nor less of his palette, and mode of handling’.2 Walton’s limited colour range, dominated by earth tones, and the refined painting technique, which emphasises subtle tonal transitions without greatly visible brushwork, echo that painter’s work, particularly A Porter with a Hare (1768–9; Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry), which also features an everyday encounter in the street.3 Conversely, Zoffany’s Florentine Fruit Stall (T00054) was sold in 1931 as a work by Walton (Christie’s, London, 12 June 1931, no.47) and subsequently re-attributed. Arguably, such pictures as Zoffany’s and Walton’s anticipated the flourishing of precisely executed genre pictures at the beginning of the nineteenth century: when the artist and diarist Joseph Farington first saw the young David Wilkie’s seminal work in this genre in 1806 he noted, ‘Many part of his pictures much resembled Walton’s former pictures’.4
Although fancy pictures can be taken at face value as charming images of everyday life, many of these images are now understood by art historians as having additional layers of erotic, political or cultural significance, all of which might be further emphasised or complicated as such pictures were seen in different contexts and or rendered in print (with the accompanying changes in tone or detail and added textual elements). When it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778 it was listed in the catalogue under the title ‘A Girl Buying a Ballad’. It does not appear to have attracted comment in the published reviews. Despite the brief and descriptive title, however, modern scholars have identified a distinct political subtext to the picture. Britain had been at war with revolutionary America since 1775, and the origins and character of the conflict, the costs of the war, and by this time the increasingly faint hopes of victory, were hugely controversial. In a 1998 monographic study of Walton, Evelyn Bell asserted that the ballad seller is a likeness of Admiral Lord Rodney, who had fled Britain in financial ruin in 1775 but had returned in May 1778. However, no evidence was provided to support this claim and a more sustained and detailed argument about the political sign finance of the work has been offered through research published by Mark Evans in 2002.5 He identified the two portraits printed on a single large sheet at the right hand edge of the composition as specific published likenesses of, on the left General William Howe (1729–1813) and on the right, his brother, Admiral Richard, Earl Howe (1726–99). The former is legibly titled ‘HOWE’ in the painting. The Howes were the joint commanders of British forces in North America from 1776 to 1778, but both harboured doubts about the war and had resigned in the winter of 1777–8. As Evans asserts, by the time Walton’s picture was exhibited in London in the spring of 1778, ‘there can be little doubt that a reasonably well-informed visitor to the Royal Academy would have recognised this topical reference to the controversy concerning the Howe brothers and the American War. The juxtaposition of the print of William Howe with the figure of the poor ballad seller, scraping a living by selling cheap broadsheets and street sweeping, was surely meant to allude to the General’s departure’. Even without this specific political reference, Walton’s picture alludes to the currency of printed songs and images as a means of communicating highly topical political and personal commentary and slander.6
Evans also proposed a connection between the figure of the ballad seller and ancient history, in the figure of the disgruntled and blind Roman general Belisarius who was driven into beggary. Belisarius had been the subject of a popular and highly political novel by the French writer Jean-François Marmontel (1723–99) published in 1767, and the character was taken up by several British artists, most prominently in a large painting by John Hamilton Mortimer shown at the Society of Artists in 1772 (private collection). This last had been part of a pictorial scheme for Radburne Hall in Derbyshire, which also incorporated a matching painting by Mortimer of Caius Marius, another ancient military leader driven to despair.7 Even if the immediate legibility of the connection between Walton’s ballad-seller and the blind Belisarius might be queried, there can be no doubt that the broad theme of the disgruntled general was a highly current theme in British art of the 1770s, reflecting political anxieties about the current administration and the threats posed to the empire secured by British military successes in the previous decade.
Aside from the potentially quite specific and topical political content of the scene, the picture demands to be interpreted as a highly technically accomplished exercise in an established genre of art which, even if it lacked status according to traditional academic hierarchies, had commercial potential and attracted connoisseurial interest. Moreover, the extreme technical refinement brought to this mode by Chardin seemed in some critics eyes to elevate the genre, and Walton is identified in modern art histories as the artist who brought the subdued palette and delicacy associated with that French artist most forcibly to Britain. The art historian Martin Postle identified the picture as marking a move towards a more ‘dignified’ interpretation of working life, and in 2002 the literary historian Newcomb related the image to a larger movement towards re–evaluating popular culture as the source of aesthetic interest: ‘By the 1770s, it was possible for Henry Walton to paint “A Pretty Maid Buying a Love-Song” (1778), treating a ballad-selling scene as an object of beauty rather than horror. The discovery of the folk had become a matter of fashion’.8
The immediate fate of Walton’s painting after the exhibition of 1778 is not known, and there is no evidence to suggest it was sold at that point. In 1780 the publisher Carrington Bowles issued a mezzotint print reproducing the composition, executed by John Raphael Smith.9 The print does not identify the owner of the original painting (perhaps suggesting it was retained by the artist, or had passed to the publisher). The image was now re-titled ‘The Pretty Maid Buying a Love Song’, which denomination arguably emphasises the potential eroticism of the exchange of glances between the ballad seller and the young woman. The images of the Howes are retained in this print, although the lettering identifying the left hand print as such has been edited out of the printed version. A further revision to the image took place when it was reproduced again, in stipple engraving, in a print by James Walker and Francesco Bartolozzi published by Robert Wilkinson in 1785.10 The print was now titled ‘The Young Maid & The Old Sailor’ and was accompanied by printed verses:
Phillis fair Maid her curious Fancy feeds
With Song poetic and romantic deeds
Which on the Wall she for amusement reads
The crippled Sailor spent his prize and pay
Earn’d by his Brav’ry in his youthfull day
Now sells the Ballad and sweeps clean the Way.
The printed image within the composition originally intended as ‘HOWE’ is now identified by the inclusion of lettering beneath it as ‘ADMAR . . . RODNEY’. This is, presumably, the source of Bell’s speculative identification of the ballad seller as a likeness of the famous British naval commander, Admiral George Brydges, first Baron Rodney (1719–92). As Evans has discussed in more detail, Rodney was acclaimed as a hero following victories against the French and Spanish fleets in the latter stages of the American war but had since suffered ill health and had become embroiled in enervating legal struggles.11 In combination with the verses, which identify the ballad seller as a ‘crippled Sailor’, the identification offers the print as a further, topical commentary on the failures of the British government and the neglect of the military during a period of crisis for the empire.
Despite this history of publication, the early provenance of the painting itself remains uncertain. The painting was exhibited in 1934 as the property of the 1st Baron Mildmay of Flete, and has been understood to have been inherited by him from his father, Henry Bingham Mildmay (1828–1905). No earlier owners are documented and it is not known at what point it entered the possession of the Mildmay family. It is possible that the painting was retained by the artist during his lifetime. Walton’s collection was willed to his widow, Elizabeth Rust (1746–1828), whose collections were sold in a local auction in Norfolk in 1828, for which the catalogue appears not to have survived. It was put up for sale at auction at Christies, London, 14 November 1997, lot no.37, by the Hon. Helen Winifred Mildmay-White (d.1997) the sister of Anthony Bingham, 2nd Baron Mildmay of Flete (1909–1950) but it failed to sell. It was subsequently accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax from the estate of the Hon. Helen Winifred Mildmay-White in 1999 and allocated to the Tate Gallery in 2000. A second version of the painting with some alterations is in a private collection and has been accepted as by Walton, although judged by Bell to be of inferior quality to the present work.12
Tate’s picture was exhibited prominently in London several times in the first half of the twentieth century, and in 1963, when the present picture and the second version were on show as part of a Walton exhibition in Norwich, it was counted as one of his ‘two best-known pictures’.13 Like the other, similarly once-famous work by Walton in Tate’s collection, A Girl Plucking a Turkey (N02870), this former celebrity has somewhat waned, and the picture has been more often illustrated and discussed in relation to issues arising in social history than as an artwork of historical or aesthetic pre-eminence.
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