William Parry

Portrait of John Parry Holding his Harp

1780–90

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Not on display

Artist
William Parry 1743–1791
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 768 × 635 × 20 mm
frame: 994 × 813 × 45 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2019
Reference
T15263

Summary

This three-quarters portrait depicts the artist’s father, the Welsh musician John Parry (?1710–1782). Framed by a feigned oval painted in the foreground and dressed in a royal-blue jacket and powdered wig, he is shown holding a ‘Welsh harp’ or triple harp – recognisable by its three parallel rows of strings. Its inclusion signifies his profession and reputation: John Parry was acclaimed as ‘the famous blind Harper’ (Daily Advertiser and Morning Herald, 26 November 1782), performing regularly in London and across the country during the mid-eighteenth century.

William Parry painted several portraits of his father, including two now in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. These earlier paintings, dating from the 1770s, show him absorbed in playing the harp. In this picture, however, it is notable that he is not shown actively making music. Although it was more common to show professionals playing their instruments, polite portraits conventionally showed sitters with instruments resting nearby. By representing him paused in thought, William Parry elevates his father’s status by portraying his music-making as an intellectual rather than purely sensory or professional activity.

By painting his father’s eyes closed, Parry signals the musician’s blindness. This was a conventional way of indicating an unsighted sitter in the eighteenth century; here it sympathetically alludes to John Parry’s visual impairment as a distinguishing characteristic. In this, the picture is comparable to Nathaniel Hone’s (1718–1784) portrait of the magistrate Sir John Fielding of 1762 (National Portrait Gallery, London), whose blindness was integral to his public image as a law enforcer. By positioning the harp in the foreground of the picture, with his father’s hands prominently placed on top and strongly lit, Parry also emphasises his ability to perceive the world through touch and sound. This multisensory representation of music-making, which bears comparison with Martin Quadal’s (1736–1808) Portrait of a Man Playing a Flute 1777 (Tate T14193), reflects the changing perception of visual impairment during the eighteenth century. Blindness was increasingly understood in physical rather than spiritual terms, prompting a growing interest in the experience of sightlessness and its impact upon cognition.

The picture is also testament to the growing interest in Welsh history and culture among British antiquarians and fashionable society during the eighteenth century. By presenting John Parry deep in contemplation rather than actively playing, the poetic and other-worldly nature of music is evoked. Through this he is aligned with the romantic image of the Welsh bard, a figure that had gained significance as a symbol of the ancient poetic tradition and source of Welsh pride. This association is particularly apt given that John Parry played and published traditional Welsh music and was the inspiration for Thomas Gray’s popular poem The Bard (1757), which in turn inspired artists such as Benjamin West (1738–1820) and William Blake (1757–1827).

William Parry was born in London and trained under Sir Joshua Reynolds (1923–1792). Following this, he spent most of his working life in Wales (except for tours in Italy), where he exploited the patronage and connections obtained through his family’s close relationship with the Williams Wynn family, the most wealthy and influential landowners in Wales. This picture was likely painted in Wales for Sackville Gwynne (c.1751–1794), a Welsh landowner and amateur harpist taught by John Parry. Historically, the inscription on the back of the canvas, reading ‘S. Gwynne’, led to the mistaken assumption that he was the subject of the picture as well. The picture cannot be dated firmly, although it may be the painting shown by Parry at the Royal Academy in 1787, as a posthumous tribute to his father. The sitter’s age and physical appearance is close to William Parry’s other portraits of his father painted in the 1770s.

Further reading
Peter Lord, The Visual Culture of Wales: Imaging the Nation, Cardiff 2000, pp.124–7.
Miles Wynn Cato, Parry: The Life and Works of William Parry A.R.A. (1743–1791), Aberystwyth 2008, catalogue no.98, reproduced p.100.
Georgina Cole, ‘Rethinking Vision in Eighteenth-century Paintings of the Blind’, in Harald Klinke (ed.), Art Theory as Visual Epistemology, Cambridge 2014, pp.47–64.

Alice Insley
January 2019

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