Portraits: British 18th C, South West England: Artists and Subjects 12 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

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

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