The Tate Gallery announced today the acquisition of Edward F. Burney’s Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music (‘Musicians of the Old School’) c.1820, a rare example in oil of the great eighteenth and nineteenth century tradition of caricature. The acquisition was entirely supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund.

Edward Burney (1760-1848) came from a family prominent in the arts: his uncle was the musicologist Charles Burney and his cousin the writer Fanny Burney. He enrolled in the Royal Academy School in 1776 and was soon encouraged in his career by the President, Joshua Reynolds. Burney was a virtuoso draughtsman, the greater part of his career being devoted to producing book illustrations though he also painted some portraits. He possessed a fine comic sense and his use of wit and irony, combined with his somewhat rococo drawing style, connects him with William Hogarth.

Burney’s most important and interesting work is a set of four large watercolours from the 1820s in which he satirises contemporary musical and social life. Two of these are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and two are in the Yale Center for British Art.

Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music is a version in oil of one of the Yale watercolours. It appears to have been the only one of this set to have been reworked by Burney as an oil painting. Its theme is the battle between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ taste in the musical 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 Gothic in style.

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’s was a very musical family; his uncle, Charles, 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.