Gainsborough’s Cittern (?)

Image: Sourced from the website.

It was announced in the press today that an extremely fine ‘Lost’ portrait by Thomas Gainsborough is going on public display for the first time in 131 years. Identified as the artists’s daughter Margaret Gainsborough, the picture is believed to have remained in the painter’s possession and was in the ownership of his descendants before being sold in 1908.

It will be appearing in an upcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, bearing the title Margaret Gainsborough, The Artist’s Daughter, Playing a Cittern.

We can be certain, however, that Margaret is playing no such thing.

Despite the abundance of scholarship in the field of historic musical instruments, picture cataloguers often mistake various instruments for being something that they are not. This is particularly true of plucked string instruments, of which a great variety were in use in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Each of these types of instruments had remarkably different histories, socially as well as developmentally. (How we today might ridicule, perhaps, a photograph exhibited as Jimi Hendrix, the famous musician at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, Playing a Ukulele.)

Margaret actually seems to be playing an instrument of the lute family. Although Gainsborough seems to have left the painting in an unfinished state, we can observe that the body shape and width of the neck is far too large and wide to be that of a Cittern.

Citterns are strung with brass or copper strings on a rather thin fretboard whose bodies are onion shaped and flat-backed. They are found in many paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Wealthy young ladies are often found playing them in pictures by Vermeer and even Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, was depicted playing one by artists C Jansen and G Houckgeest. These instruments are much smaller, and have a rather dainty and hollow sound. In eighteenth century Britain, Citterns had developed into the so-called ‘English Guittar’, which often became the favourite accessory of women in portraits by the likes of Francis Cotes and Joshua Reynolds. Gainsborough painted the notorious female musician Ann Ford, later Mrs Thicknesse, holding one such instrument in the early 1760s. A study for the picture shows that he had originally intended for her to play a baroque guitar, however. –  (The guitar too having a quite separate history in its own right).


Margaret Gainsborough’s instrument, however, derives from the lute family. Its size, the thicker neck, and subtle tapering of the tear shaped profile of the body, is entirely in keeping with that of a lute. The instrument’s larger dimensions, and the way it continues out of the painting, might even suggest it been an later archlute [or theorbo] with a long extended neck. (Alternatively, yet less likely, it may be a Mandora. This being a differently tuned and strung instrument that bore the same physical shape of a lute, and was popular amongst the aristocracy during the eighteenth century.)

In the sixteenth century the lute had been described by writers as the ‘Queen of Instruments’, so highly regarded was it amongst the educated and wealthy. Although the popularity of the instrument had significantly waned by the late eighteenth century, its historic and noble associations had remained. This is particularly true of painters who were devoted to the Old Masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where lutes and encountered at every turn. One might imagine that here Gainsborough has purposefully showed his beloved daughter playing this antiquated, yet noble instrument, to emphasise her sophistication and many virtues.

We know that Thomas Gainsborough was phenomenally interested in music. Not only was he an amateur musician, noted for his playing on the Gamba, he painted some of the leading composers and musicians who lived in eighteenth century Britain, including Johann Christian Bach and Johann Friedrich Abel. The artist’s portrait of Abel’s in the NPG is as much of a rendering of his outstanding Gamba as it is the musician. I concede that the instrument might well have been described as a cittern in an historic inventory (probably written by someone who too didn’t know the difference), yet, it is curious to imagine what Gainsborough himself would have called it.

An intriguing anecdote written by William Jackson of Exeter tells that Gainsborough had a quarrel with the notable German lutenist Rudolf Straube, regarding his reluctance to relinquish his instrument and music book to the artist (which he eventually bought, so the story goes). It has been suggested that Straube may too have been teaching Gainsborough how to play the lute, as a manuscript containing lute tablature with annotations survives from his London period. (M. Spring, The Lute in Britain, p.415).

Might it well be Straube’s lute in this painting…?

Gainsborough’s Family Album opens at the National Portrait Gallery on 22nd November and runs till 3rd February 2019.

Update – Here is that anecdote of Gainsborough’s acquiral of Straube’s lute in full (from G W Fulcher, Life of Thomas Gainsborough, 1856, pp.73-4) ;

“Happening on a time to see a theorbo in a picture of Vandyke’s, Gainsborough concluded, because, perhaps, it was finely painted, that the theorbo must be a fine instrument. He recollected to have heard of a German professor, and ascending to his garret found him dining on roasted apples, and smoking his pipe with his theorbo beside him. ‘I am come to buy your lute – name your price, and here’s your money.’ ‘I cannot sell my lute’ – ‘No, not for a guinea or two – but you must sell it, I tell you.’ ‘My lute is worth much money – it is worth ten guineas.’ Aye! that it is – see, here’s the money.’ So saying, he took up the instrument, laid down the price, went half way down the stair, and returned. ‘I have done but half my errand; what is your lute worth if I have not your book?’ ‘What book, Master Gainsborough?’ ‘Why, the book of airs you have composed for the lute.’ ‘Ah, sir, I can never part with my book!’ ‘Poh! you can make another at any time – this is the book I mean – there’s ten guineas for it – so once more good day.’ He went down a few steps, and returned again. ‘What use is your book to me if I don’t understand it? and your lute, you may take it again if you won’t teach me to play on it. Come home with me, and give me the first lesson.’ ‘I will come to-morrow.’ ‘You must come now.’ ‘I must dress myself.’ ‘For what? You are the best figure I have seen to-day.’ ‘I must shave, sir.’ I honour your beard!’ ‘I must, however, put on my wig.’ ‘D- your wig! your cap and beard become you! Do you think if Vandyck was to wait you, he’d let you be shaved?’…


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