Portraits: British 18th C, South West England: Artists and Subjects 31 Who painted this portrait? Is the sitter William Jackson, organist and composer?

Topic: Artist

Is this painting actually by Thomas Gainsborough? If not who could it be by? Is the sitter William Jackson, referred to as 'Jackson of Exeter', who was an English organist and composer? Did he play the harp as well?

Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Christopher Foley,

This looks altogether too flimsy for Gainsborough - though he and Jackson were close friends. If it is of Jackson perhaps it might be by him too. He gave music lessons to Gainsborough who quid pro quo taught him painting. More likely by a minor, possibly itinerant, painter like Edward Alcock. Jackson's daughter married John Downman, but again this is too primitive to have been painted by him.

Justin Reay,

This somewhat resembles the sitter for a portrait of which a copy was engraved for 'Devonshire Characters and Strange Events', Sabine Baring-Gould, Exeter 1908, although the lips are more full than in the painting at issue.
While the published engraving does look like a Gainsborough portrait, the painting does not - the modelling of the face and the draughtsmanship of the right arm are not of his standard and the pose is awkward. As Jackson knew Gainsborough very well it is probable that he did paint the composer's portrait, but not this one.
Equally, Jackson also knew Reynolds, but the same stricture applies, as it does to Joseph Wright of Derby, who also painted portraits of visitors to Bath.
As to the harp, it seems from a comment by Jackson about Gainsborough meeting a harpist (quoted in the entry cited above), and from his very busy work as an organist and composer, that it is unlikely for him to also have been a harpist of enough significance to warrant the instrument being so strongly featured.

Michael Liversidge,

I suggest asking Hugh Belsey who is the leading authority on Gainsborough. It is too weak for TG himself, but Hugh Belsey has catalogued the portraits and may know who the imitator is.


As an aside we can dismiss John Opie I think, not least on style alone.
Baring Gould mentions two portraits by Opie
Rogers describes in detail Opie's 1783 Royal Academy portrait as seen to waist in a green backed chair seated in a panelled room, holding a book ("John Opie and His Works" p113)
On the other hand the engraving in Baring Gould could easily be based on a portrait by Opie.

The possibility that it is a self portrait? Ada Earland (John Opie and His Circle p49 ) notes that William Jackson himself "had been a portrait painter (none too successful)"

Hugh Belsey,

Sorry, not William Hickey, Thomas Hickey. My apologies.
Hugh Belsey

Hugh Belsey,

Thank you Michael. My earlier message which never reached Art Uk stated that the portrait is not by Gainsborough neither is the sitter William Jackson. I have visited RAMM twice to discuss this matter with the staff. The last time this attribution was mooted was in the 1950s and the attribution was rejected by Professor Sir Ellis Waterhouse as early as 1958. I think the likely painter is the Bath-based artist Thomas Hickey and I would be interested to hear other people's opinion. There are two portraits of Jackson by Gainsborough and the features are quite different. The best illustration is in Gainsborough's House Review 1996/7 which contains much additional information about the sitter. I hope this is helpful and puts the hard pressed curator at Exeter on the right tracks.
Hugh Belsey

Royal Albert Memorial Museum,

Thank you for your comments we are investigating the possible attribution to Thomas Hickey, however as the work has already been misattributed once already we are investigating all options thoroughly and finding evidence to back up any new attribution from several sources. In deciding to remove the Gainsborough attribution we asked for several experts’ opinion before we took this step. Thank you all for your comments and suggestions they are very much appreciated.

My feeling is we should wind this one up as Hugh has rejected the Gainsborough attribution several times. However, you may feel that it could continue as an 'attributed to Thomas Hickey' of an unknown harpist, in the hope of identification of sitter or artist. I don't know whether the provenance firmly links the portrait to Exeter? And although it is a weak portrait we might be able to date it, approximately, from the sitter's costume and wig.

Hugh Belsey,

Thomas Hickey left England for India in July 1780. His ship was kidnapped by the French and Spanish and he resided in Portugal for a couple of years where he painted a number of portraits. Details of the costume point to a date about 1780. The bow at the throat and overlaying the waistcoat collar with the those of the coat appears in portraits about this time, though the type of the curled wig is usually associated with an earlier date but, male fashion often moves at a slower pace than female attire.

The portrait came from the Ernest Cook bequest in 1950 and it was purchased by him at Sotheby's on 14 December 1949, lot 107b. Sadly the vendor at this sale is unrecorded, so I doubt that it will be possible to find further provenance for the painting.

E Jones,

I have a small query with regards to the harp in the painting.
It looks like an Eighteenth Century French Pedal Harp with three rows of strings.

The harp, with its highly decorated soundboard appears to resemble a French Pedal Harp. for example Holtzman of Paris C.1780/85. It also has some details similar to (as we call it in Wales) a ‘Telyn Deires’ i.e. A harp of three rows. A specific type of harp that became known as ‘The Welsh Triple Harp’.

As you can see, there are three rows of strings.
The outer strings are tuned to the the diatonic scale. The middle row, Chromatic.
The middle row of this harp does the same job as the pedals on a pedal harp.
It can either be a Pedal harp or a Triple Harp but not both at the same time.

The gentleman is also resting the harp on his left shoulder. This was the traditional way of playing what became known as the Welsh Triple Harp rather than the conventional pedal harp (on the right). There were many well known players of this particular instrument and some of the very grand houses had their own player (including royalty).

The Triple harps were much simpler looking, taller and had very different shaped holes in the soundboard than the continental ones. The place where the shoulder of the harp (the part that sticks out near the ear) and the soundbox meet on the Welsh Triple Harp is much narrower than on the pedal harp, it is taller, has a steeper curve and a thinner pillar. My feeling is that maybe the painting looks a little awkward. The curve of the neck also looks a little similar to the sharp curve on a Triple Harp and that I wonder if it could have been made to look more like a conventional harp.

Could this painting have started life as an earlier depiction of a Welsh Triple Harp, but been later heavily overpainted/changed?
Could this be the reason why the information from the canvas is a little mixed?
Just a thought.

Holtzman Pedal Harp -Boston Museum of Fine Art

Telyn Deires/Welsh Triple Harp

Matthews the blind harpist -People's Collection of Wales

David Lewis, harpist to King George II by William Hogarth

John Parry -Blind Triple Harpist to King George III by William Parry

Thank you very much E.Jones for your work on the harp, and the attached illustrations. I hope it will prove useful to the curator of Exeter's collection. Your dating of the harp corresponds to Hugh's dating of the sitter's costume, which is satisfying. I agree that the painting of the neck/shoulder is especially awkward, but this is a rather weak artist who struggled with the pose. Only an examination by a paintings conservator could confirm if the harp was overpainted but it is an intriguing idea. Thank you again for your specialist knowledge, Art Detective thrives on these contributions.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum,

Thank you very much for posting about the harp and attaching the associated links! There is a fair amount of over painting which has been carried out in regards to this work. The fact that the harp is positioned on the players left shoulder does seem to back up the assertion that the harp was previously a Welsh Triple harp, rather than the conventional pedal harp. I will have a look at the conservation file again and see if it mentions in detail the specific areas of over painting. It is very useful to have another piece of dating evidence which tally's with Hugh's. Thank you very much for your work.

Timothy Roberts,

The historical harp expert Frances Kelly told me that the instrument was certainly a triple harp; all pedal harps have only one row of strings. By the way, we do know that Jackson

Timothy Roberts,

...we do know that Gainsborough seems to have played the harp, from Gainsborough's letter of 14 Feb 1769: 'The harp is packed up to come to you, and you shall take it out with Miss——, and I'll not take anything for it, but give it to you to twang upon when you cannot twang upon Mrs. Jackson...'

Royal Albert Memorial Museum,

Timothy thank you very much for this contribution. Can you clarify if this letter dated 14 Feb 1769 written by Gainsborough is alluding to Jackson playing the harp...its a little bit unclear from your two comments...I believe it is but need to clarify. That's very useful information concerning the triple harp I will add this information now to our collections database. Many thanks!

Osmund Bullock,

The full text of the letter can be seen here http://bit.ly/2zOUafv and on the following page...not that it makes the allusion any clearer. It seems to be wrapped around various sexual innuendos about both Jackson's wife and Miss xxx - probably Miss Floud, a pupil of Jackson's in Exeter that Gainsborough & Jackson both 'admired', and whom G. seems to have made some sort of attempt – rejected by her – to seduce. See James Hamilton's just published 'Gainsborough: A Portrait', currently viewable here: http://bit.ly/2BmLUji . There is another apparent reference to her in an earlier letter on the same page at the (Hathi Trust) link at the top: "Pray make my compliments to one lady who is neat about her mouth, if you can guess".

According to Hamilton, the late John Hayes tentatively identified Miss Floud as Elizabeth Flood, daughter of an alderman Flood of Exeter. Hugh Belsey or someone else may already have spotted this, but I've found a reference that strongly suggests she was in fact Grace Floud, daughter of an Exeter merchant, who later (1778) married Edward Ragueneau, a central member of Jackson's Exeter musical circle. See http://bit.ly/2AnKubv & http://bit.ly/2j48xSO . Tracking her genealogically, I find she was baptised at Exeter (St Mary Major) in March 1750, the daughter of John Floud an Exeter haberdasher, and thus just the right age (18/19) in Feb 1769.

So was a harp *really* packed up and sent, or is it just a crude flight of fancy tied up with the letter's word play? Certainly it does at least seem (to my mind) to have a secondary meaning as, um...well, something else that Jackson and Miss Flood might take out of its packing together and play with...but on balance, despite the double entendre, I think he *is* talking about a real one – Gainsborough did famously acquire a string of musical instruments, often from eminent musicians, that he soon abandoned when the brilliance of their former owners failed to materialize instantly at his hands. To pass it on thus to such an active musical group run by a close and admired friend would make perfect sense...but only, of course, if one or more among them played the harp.

It thus seems very possible to me – though I cannot find proof – that it was the harp that Jackson was teaching Grace: the organ would not be considered appropriate for a young lady, though of course it may have been another keyboard instrument. Or both. And moreover Gainsborough prided himself on his carefully worked-out epistolary wit (rough drafts of his wordplay are known) – I think for him the joke would only work properly if Jackson and Grace really did play the harp together.

Pure conjecture, of course, but that's my hypothesis.

Neil Jeffares,

William Parry perhaps? His father was the famous blind harpist, so he probably taught or knew many others. The general level seems consistent with Parry's other portraits in various media. Miles Wynn Cato is the expert.

Martin Hopkinson,

This seems to be weaker than Parry's portrait of his father - but could it be a copy?

Royal Albert Memorial Museum,

Thank you both for these interesting leads. It’s a real shame that there is no proof that it was the harp Jackson was teaching Grace. I will be looking further into both the letters and also the William Parry idea, which looks most promising. Many thanks!

E Jones,

There are two sketches in the collection of the British Museum by Gainsborough of harps.
One delyn deires (Welsh triple) note the high pillar and sitting into the left shoulder. The other pedal.

The pedal harp sketch is a preparatory drawing for a portrait painted by Gainsborough of Lady Clarges, it is in the possession of the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath. The painting of Lady Clarges is decorated in a very similar manner as the harp in the Exeter painting.

As previously posted on the thread, I thought that the pedal harp was once a Welsh Triple harp as three rows of string do not appear on pedal harps. I did also wonder whether the painter had not only updated the harp but changed a significant part of the harpist's face as well. This suggestion and the following below was not included in my last post as they are much more unusual ideas and quite different to most on the thread.

Gainsborough was known to have an association with composers and musicians such as Karl Friedrich Abel, Johann Christian Bach etc. As much as I hate to suggest, could it be possible the painting as we now see was designed to deceive? and that the primary source for the Gentleman in the painting is the Gainsborough portrait of Johann Christian Bach.

The original is in the International Museum and Library of Music of Bologna, a copy of which is in the National Portrait Gallery. One of the few portraits of the musician. Could it be a composition of a harp similar to which Gainsborough is known to have painted , over a recycled earlier canvas of a man playing the triple harp, of a person he is known to have been acquainted, who is known to have played and composed for the harp?

I think the painter could have been restricted with regards to the space he had to cover and fill, as well as having to adapt the various angles of the facial features as shown in the source material to the new body.

I think that the painter painted each facial feature on an individual basis and gradually adjusted each one to fit to the best of his ability, rather than observing the face as a whole. I think that they started painting the gentleman's right eye (note the way the iris sits in the upper left corner and the corresponding arch of the eyebrow) realising that the nose had to be facing in the other direction. It is also interesting to look at a horizontally flipped version of the nose and left eye. The mouth was left with little change, which is why it and it's shadows are in the wrong place. I think they clearly struggled to pull everything together with regards to the left eye.

Could this be where the original attribution to Gainsborough came from?

2 attachments
Kieran Owens,

In her chapter on William Jackson in 'Devonshire Characters and Strange Events', (Exeter 1908), Sabine Baring-Gould does not mention the word harp once. Was Jackson known to have played this instrument?

And interesting piece on the relationship between Jackson and Gainsborough can be seen here:


Kieran Owens,

Between the years 1750 and 1799 the words Triple Harp produce thirty seven results (for me) when searched for in the British Newspaper Archive. Over that period of time the names of Mr. Phillips, Mr. Bromley (of Oxford), Mr, Edward Jones (of Oxford, and Welsh Harper to the Prince of Wales) and Mr. Williams appear once or twice as performers on this particular instrument. However, by far the greatest numbers of references are for the Welsh harpist Mr. Evan Evans, and are mainly associated with his appearances in Bath and Reading.

In various notices, Evan Evans is described as a pupil of the late Mr. Parry. The first attachment, from the Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette of Thursday 4th April 1765, gives some idea as to the style of his presentations. Various mentions of his programmes show that he was playing traditional Welsh tunes as well as works by Vivaldi, Corelli, Girodani and other popular classical composers of the day.

As will be seen later, Evans died (for the third time!!) finally in 1795, reportedly in his 47th year, and therefore must (if the dates and ages be correct) have been just 17 years of age when appearing in this 1765 concert.

In 1771, an advertisement dated 19th January, proclaims that "Mr. Evans, performer on the Triple Harp, takes this opportunity to inform the Nobility and Gentry of his arrival in (London) town, and that he will wait on them at their houses, by directing a line to him at Jack's Coffee House, Dean Street, Soho."

On Monday 15th June 1772, the Reading Mercury ran an advertisement for a concert by Evans (aged 24) in the Reading Town Hall, noting that her had previously played to the nobility of Great Britain, France and Ireland.

Subsequent concerts are advertised has being forthcoming in issue of papers in the years 1774, 1775, 1776, 1777, 1778, 1780, 1781, 1783, 1787,

Some time before his death, John Hill (1716 - 1775), the editor of the last folio of Chamber's Cyclopedia, learned from Evans the workings and structure of the Triple Harp. This description, contained in the last attachment, might be usefully compared to the harp that is depicted in this discussion's painting.

In the Bath Chronicle of the 1st October 1789, Evans' first death is noticed thus: "Thursday, died of a paralytic stroke, at Fisherwick Hall, the seat of the Earl of Donnegal (sic), Mr. Evans, of this city, the celebrated performer on the Triple Harp."

Subsequently, the European Magazine of October 1791 stated that Mr. Evans, harper of Bath, had died "lately in consequence of a fall from two pair of stairs window, at Fakenham, Norfolk."

Finally, the Chester Courant, of Tuesday 13th January 1795, reports the death of Evan Evans in this manner: "Sunday se'ennight died, in the 47th year of his age, Mr. Evan Evans, esteemed one of the most eminent performers on the triple harp in the kingdom; whose loss will be much felt by many of his poorer brethren, among whom his secret charities were very extensive. He closed a pious life by a lingering illness, which he sustained with exemplary patience and resignation."

Perhaps there was more than one Evan Evans, Welsh harper of Bath, but that seems unlikely. If we take it that the 1795 report of his death in his 47th year is correct, than he was born, as mentioned above, in 1748.

It is a possibility, therefore, that this painting depicts Evan Evans, as a well-dressed harpist to Royalty, Nobility and Gentry, and performer at good venues throughout the British Isles, Ireland, and beyond. The time period seems correct (somewhere between the early 1770s and the late 1780s, when he would have been in his twenties to his late thirties, and the triple harp shown in the painting seems to fit Evan's own description of such an instrument.

Jenny Carlile,

Was William Jackson left-handed? Whoever this is is playing the harp the wrong way round. The harp is usually played over the right shoulder with the right hand playing the treble and the left hand the bass (as on a piano - or organ). The sitter seems to be either left-handed or does not know how to play a harp.

Kieran Owens,

Your observation regarding the playing position might apply to today's classical harpists but the following links will show that "left-handed" playing was not unusual, especially in regards to the Gaelic harp and harpers.









Attached is a composite of this discussion's painting and a stretch, from 1810, of the famous (left-handed) Irish harper, Charles Byrne, who is believed to have been born c.1712. The excellent essay accessed through the last link above, gives a detailed account of his interesting life.

Joanne Julier,

Having seen the painting on the BBC this week, I thought I'd mention that this is certainly a triple harp - &, as well as the visible three rows, the player is using it on the traditionally Welsh left shoulder, wheras continental players tended to use triples like pedals & play on the "normal" right shoulder. This was not / is not confined to left-handed players - contemporary Triple players such as Robin Huw Bowen follow this style. I'd conclude that the sitter is more likely to be a Welsh harpist: many aristocratic families of 16th-18th centuries had harpists in residence at larger Welsh country houses, where they were likely to wear servants' livery, but this player appears better dressed - I like the ideas of Mr Owen above re: Evan Evans. My knowledge is purely on the musical side, not the artistic, but I thought it might be worth adding to the discussion.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum,

Thank you very much for your very helpful comments. I will be looking into the idea that this gentleman is a Welsh harpist such as Mr Evan Evans or Charles Byrne. Has anyone come across and image of Mr Evan Evans in their research?

Mike Parker,

The triple harp exists in more than one variety. Although the 'welsh harp' has become the most commonly thought of variant, in the 1680's Talbot describes the high-headed, short bodied, softwood soundboard triple harp we tend to call 'welsh' now as The English harp, whilst the welsh harp is a 5 octave bray harp with a single row.

The first known maker of triples in the UK, is based in London ( David Evans) and he taught John Richards who, c, 1750, starts building triple harps in wales. The first claim of the triple welsh harp 1729, in a single source, but there are many more sources just mentioning THE triple harp, without giving it a nation designation, and even more just calling it The Harp. The instrument now in St Fagins called 'The Powys Castle Harp', and claimed to date from the 1680's is a 19th C fabrication, and the terracing on the neck goes the wrong way, so it could never have played as it stands.

Alongside English/welsh triples, there is one reference to the Italian harp, which might imply a doppia, or tre registre, though we cannot be sure, but French triple harps (as described by Trichet) are known, and the few surviving examples have some major differences with the English/Welsh variants, namely the shoulder, which is not the 'fan and bobbin' form. What I would say, is that instruments of the English/first welsh pattern(as in John Richards and followers) have vertical grain, bent boards with no applied bridge strip, and you don't see a bridge strip on welsh-style instruments until the second pattern, with the flat, horizontal grain board made by Basset Jones et al.

The French triple I copied (dated 1710, and, by happy coincidence, with exactly the range required for the Handel Concerto) has stringing on the right, but has unreamed pin holes in the frame that could take the stringing down parallel in the bass, and a shoulder with flange on each side of the neck, filling out the top block.

My other observation is that, if it were a French single-action harp that then got repainted as a triple later, the player is sitting SERIOUSLY low.... I would suggest that, unless the player is under 4' tall, he would have to be sitting on a stool about 10 inches high to have his head in that position in relation to the neck, which would make using pedals impossible...

I propose that the image shows a French triple harp, not a welsh triple harp, and is painted pretty much as it was.

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