In the 1820s Burney executed four large water-colour paintings satirising contemporary musical and social life: The Waltz (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), The Elegant Establishment for Young Ladies (Victoria and Albert Museum), Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut) and The Glee Club; or, The Triumph of Music (Yale Center for British Art). Burney may have intended to publish prints of the paintings and to sell both originals and prints, in the manner of Hogarth's 'Progresses'. There was a substantial market for satirical prints during this period. The four pictures were, however, never published.
This is a version of the third-named painting, the only one, apparently, which Burney reworked as an oil painting. Its theme is the battle between 'modern' and 'traditional' taste in the music world. The modern is represented by references to Beethoven, Mozart and others in the foreground, while traditional taste is epitomised by Handel, whose bust looks down upon a group of musicians, appropriately dressed, who are playing (discordantly) music by his great contemporary Arcangelo Corelli. The concert takes place in a room whose decorations are predominantly Gothick in style, a further indication of the revival of ancient tastes. Burney includes many apparent and traditional amusing details such as the howling dog, noisy children, striking clocks, a careless servant, and a sneezing, coughing, snoring and throat-clearing audience.
Burney's picture is full of clever and subtle allusions to the battle between the Ancients and Moderns at a time when a revival of interest in the work of old composers such as Handel was beginning to challenge the accepted supremacy of contemporaries such as Beethoven. Burney came from a family prominent in the arts. His uncle, Dr Charles Burney, was a noted musicologist who was at the centre of a lively debate about the respective merits of 'old' and 'new' music, and his writings undoubtedly provided Edward with much of the inspiration for this picture. An intense rivalry existed between Dr Burney and Sir John Hawkins, a traditionalist, and Hawkins was inevitably the target of satirisation by Burney's many friends. Dr Burney wrote a long satiric poem about Hawkins in 1777, entitled The Trial of Midas the Second, naming numerous musicians associated with Hawkins and Burney. Edward must have been familiar with the work, for the same musicians appear in his painting, and a statuary group on the mantelpiece depicts the 'Judgement' with Midas (Hawkins's alter-ego in the poem) wearing a tye-wig, symbol of old-fashioned music.
Patricia Crown, 'Visual Music: E.F. Burney and a Hogarth Revival', Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, vol.83, no.4, winter 1980, pp.435-72
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Technique and condition
The painting is on a fine, twill-woven, linen canvas which measures 710 x 915mm. It is unlined and on its original stretcher, a plain pine rectangle with adjustable, square, mortise and tenon joints. The stretcher bars are 60mm wide and 20mm thick and they have a bevel on the inner front edge. The canvas itself is still quite supple, though it is showing signs of weakness at some of the tacking points. It is somewhat buckled at the corners and on the turnover edges. The ground is a thin layer of light stone-coloured paint, applied smoothly without texture; a few slightly knobbly areas may relate to later treatments. It is present over the whole stretched front of the canvas and goes over onto the tacking margins, though not for their full width. There appears to be a thin, translucent wash of golden brown paint on top of the ground, though this may have been the artist's first laying-in of the composition.
The painting has been repaired with patches on the back on two occasions: the first treatment looks very old and consists of nine small patches of a coarse, felted material stuck down with what appears to be brown paint. The damages they reinforce are small; only one is easily visible from the front, a filling about 8mm diameter next to the oval picture to the left of the organ. The second treatment looks recent and is a patch of canvas about 170mm by 80mm, stuck down with wax-resin adhesive. It supports a v-shaped tear, which has been well restored at the front.
Apart from these damages, the painting is in good condition. Adhesion of the paint and ground to the support is adequate, only a small area near the lower right corner showing signs of past weakness, which has since been treated. Abrasion of paint is minor and confined to thin dark areas. The varnish is a clear, synthetic resin, probably PVOH since it swells readily in water. It is a little patchy but does not need treatment.
The technique of painting is graphic in quality. There are traces of fine, precise drawing lines beneath the paint. The oil paint is largely smooth and opaque, and was applied wet-in-wet. The artist allowed the golden-brown underlayer to work unaided in the dark shadows throughout the composition, though not for the shadows in the flesh-tones, which were done in semi-opaque paint. All the outlines were strengthened by the artist in black or brown paint once the colour had dried. There are pentimenti in the lower left foreground above the mound of song-sheets.
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