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Early Victorian painting - Woman in mourning with harp

I have been collecting prints, photographs, drawings, exchanging, and paintings of harps and harpists for some years. Yesterday, I picked up this lovely early Victorian portrait (oil on canvas, c1840) from Gorringes Auctions (Lewes, Sussex).

The painting is rather dirty and will need cleaning; there is damage, some of it repaired, but more repairs are necessary. It appears to be unsigned, though a signature may reveal the artist during conservation; we can say that it is well executed, the sitters face being particularly well painted.

This is clearly a painting of some status. Its composition, particularly the clothing of the sitter, suggests that it was painted to commemorate a period of mourning - black was worn for a year following the death of a close loved one. Although we do not know who the sitter is, we can suggest that her husband had died. To the right top-corner of the painting is a single-action harp (more on that shortly). The harp was commonly associated with female education and status, and the ability to play well advertised the player's skill. It was a desired skill on the marriage market and was something that middle- and upper-class husbands of the time might have looked for in a future wife. That the harp is not in the hands of the sitter, or place more centrally, but positioned behind her (effectively silenced), suggests that she could play but was not doing so at the time the portrait was made. Music and entertainment commonly ceased following a death for up to a year. The records of the Erat harp company confirm that following a death in the family, harps were sometimes 'put into mourning' - that is, they were refinished black.

The sitter is posed to display her wealth. The room setting and furnishings certainly indicate this, but her jewellery confirms it. She is educated. In her right hand she hold a gold-nibbed pen and on the table are the accoutrements of writing (ink pots) and three small tomes, possibly prayer books.



The maker of the harp can be identified. Its capital is decorated with caryatids - these first appeared on Erard's double-action harp from 1811. The base of the pillar, however, has acanthus leaves, and its shape (vase-like) is typical of harps by Jacob Erat.

Erat used caryatids on his harps from c1815 as an alternative to rams heads. There are numerous surviving single-action Erat instruments on which the decoration corresponds to the harp in the painting - we therefore have our maker. Furthermore, we can give the harp an approximate date. After Jacob's death in February 1821, his sons, Jacob junior and James took on his business. By 1825 they'd abandoned this design in favour of one used by Erard. So, we can say that the harp in the painting was made by the Erat's some time between 1815 and 1825.


I don't know a lot about paintings - I'm still learning. I wonder if paintings of this type were common. I have another picture, this time in pastels, which also shows a woman in morning with a harp; the painting, this time, is signed 'John Watlins', and is dated 1840.



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© 2020 by Mike Baldwin

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