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