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A Village Choir

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    England, Great Britain (painted)

  • Date:

    1847 (exhibited)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Webster, Thomas (RA), born 1800 - died 1886 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on panel

  • Credit Line:

    Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

  • Museum number:

    FA.222[O]

  • Gallery location:

    Paintings, room 82, case WEST WALL

  • Download image

This work illustrates Washington Irving's 'Christmas Day', from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1820). His essay was a comical and sentimental account of an old-fashioned village choir and its musicians. The painting was probably Webster's most famous and admired work, critically praised its 'truth and diversity of character'.

Physical description

Oil painting depicting a village choir, illustrating various "characters" in a rural church choir and band.

Place of Origin

England, Great Britain (painted)

Date

1847 (exhibited)

Artist/maker

Webster, Thomas (RA), born 1800 - died 1886 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil on panel

Dimensions

Height: 60.4 cm estimate, Width: 91.5 cm estimate, Height: 89 cm frame dimensions, Width: 119 cm frame dimensions, Depth: 11 cm frame dimensions

Object history note

Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

Descriptive line

Oil painting entitled 'A Village Choir' by Thomas Webster. Great Britain, 1847.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Baker, Malcolm and Richardson, Brenda, eds. A Grand Design : The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1997. 431 p., ill. ISBN 1851773088. Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860, Ronald Parkinson, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: HMSO, 1990, p. 298
A characteristic example of the type of English genre painting that John Sheepshanks collected and gave to the Museum, this nostalgic representation of a mythical English rural past has since its acquisition remained a popular work. Webster painted A Village Choir on commission from Sheepshanks, who already owned five works by the artist, and who exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1847.
Sheepshanks inherited the family cloth manufacturing business, retiring in the late 1820s at the age of forty. He had already begun collecting old master prints and copies after Italian Renaissance pictures, but from about 1830 he concentrated on buying contemporary British paintings, either from the Royal Academy's summer exhibitions or direct from the artist. Sheepshanks owned a house in Rutland Gate, just around the corner from the South Kensington Museum, and a "country" home in Blackheath in South London. It seems likely that, in common with some of his contemporaries, he favoured paintings of rural life for nostalgic reasons, given the increasing urbanisation of London and its environs.
The subject of A Village Choir was inspired by Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of 1820, which described the various "characters" in a rural church choir and band. Perhaps the success in the later 1830s and 1840s of Dickens's earlier novels also prompted Webster to tap this similar vein of humor and sentiment. To quote two contemporary critics in 1847, the diversity of "true expression" in this painting ranges from "the region of more laughter into that of gentle character and homely English romance." It is without a doubt Webster's most famous picture and has been reproduced many times in magazines and newspapers, especially at Christmas. V&A files record the survival of the musical instruments depicted and two of the kerchiefs worn, as well as identifications of several members of the choir.

Lit. Parkinson, 1990, pp. 298-300

RONALD PARKINSON
Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860, Ronald Parkinson, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: HMSO, 1990, pp. 298-300
The following is the full text of the entry:

"WEBSTER, Thomas, RA (1800-1886)

Born Pimlico, London, 20 March 1800, son of a member of staff of the Royal Household. Chorister in Chapel Royal, entered RA Schools 1821, winning gold medal 1824. In a long and successful career, exhibited 83 works at the RA between 1823 and 1879, 39 at the BI 1824-44, and eight at the SBA 1825-34. Early pictures were portraits and historical subjects, but following success of 'Rebels Shooting a Prisoner' (showing children at play) 1827, specialised in similar scenes, and of school and village life, comparable to those of Wilkie and Mulready. Influential and much admired, they became popular through engravings. Elected ARA 1840, RA 1846, and Honorary Retired RA 1876.
Contributed illustrations to the Etching Club's 'Deserted Village', 'Songs of Shakespeare' and 'Etch'd Thoughts' (1841-4). Moved to Cranbrook, Kent, 1856; senior member of the Cranbrook Colony of painters. Died Cranbrook 23 September 1886; his studio sale was at Christie's 21 May 1887.
LIT: Art Journal 1855, pp293-6, 1862, p138, 1866, pp40, 330, 1886
pp351-2 (obit); Athenaeum 2 October 1886, p439 (obit); The Times 24 September 1886 (obit); DNB

A Village Choir
FA222 Neg HB1252
Panel, 60.4 X 91.5 cm (23 ¾ X 36 ins) Sheepshanks Gift 1857
Painted for John Sheepshanks, exhibited at the RA in 1847, and probably the artist's most famous work.
A pen and ink sketch inscribed 'first idea' is in the Jupp annotated and illustrated RA catalogues (in the RA Library); five chalk studies for heads are in the V&A collections (also Sheepshanks Gift, FA92, 206-8, 210). The subject is set in the old west gallery of the church of All Saints, Bow Brickhill, near Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, (the choir balcony no longer exists), although the accuracy of Webster's depiction of the setting was questioned in an article by J Wyness (The North Buckinghamshire Times 12 December 1933); there are further notes on this matter on the Departmental files. Webster stayed for a time with (probably) his sister in the nearby village of Little Brickhill, and supposedly made studies in the area. It also seems that his sister supervised the Sunday School there, and the girls in the painting conform to contemporary rules concerning dress for church (no jewellery, for example). Identifications of the figures have been suggested: the clarinettist was 'Old Tooth', possibly a blacksmith, and/or a Mr Wooton; the figure on his left was a Mr Kent; and the name 'Jane Wyatt' is inscribed in pencil on the unpainted margin at the bottom of the panel (concealed by the frame) under the figure of the girl on the conductor's right. The granddaughter of the taller of the boys on the conductor's left wrote to the V&A in 1960 identifying them as William (1837-1914) and James Byway. There is also a tradition (noted by W Harvey Thomas Clark of Canterbury (1775-1859) Whitstable 1983, p53) that the choir is that of the church in Cranbrook, Kent, where Webster lived, and that the conductor in the painting is John Francis senior and the clarinettist the composer Thomas Clark himself.
The subject was inspired by Washington Irving's The Sketch Book published in 1820; this is discussed in some detail by R Conyers Morrell (see Lit: below). Irving tells a comic and sentimental episode in which a village squire takes him to the local church, and describes the various 'characters' in the choir and band. In turn, Webster's painting seems to have inspired Randolph Caldecott's illustration to Irving's Old Christmas (1876 edition facing p96,, 1886 facing p73). The theme of music in parish churches and the advent of mechanical musical instruments are dealt with in Thomas Hardy's novel Under the Greenwood Tree (first published 1872), and, as Harvey points out, in The Return of the Native (1878).
Contemporary critics recognised the high quality of Webster's invention and execution. The Athenaeum commented at length, and concentrated on the expressive qualities of the work:
. . . the extreme point to which the delineation of expression in the human countenance may be carried and escape the exaggeration which is caricature. As its title demands, it gives the very ideal of a country choir, - every individual member of which is a village amateur filled with a sense of his own musical ability and accomplishment, vocal or instrumental. With what a visible conviction of his own importance is that clerk conducting the discordant elements of his supposed harmony; and how is his zeal responded to by the musical troup whom he governs with uplifted hand. He of the clarionet is well supported by the bass. The next performer is a wonderful piece of true expression; and never were there three more admirable studies than the three trebles - two little charity girls, simple and unaffected in their looks as plain and primitive in their costume, and the pretty, modest little creature on their right. The figures, in fact, are many - and full of meaning.
The Examiner compared Webster's achievement with that of the late Sir David Wilkie, which was indeed high praise:
'For truth and diversity of character, and for careful painting, we doubt if there is a more valuable piece in the whole collection [that is, at the RA 1847].' The critic especially admired the contrast between the comic characters and the children and young couple in the right background, who 'carry us out of the region of more laughter into that of gentle character and homely English romance'.
The Art Journal also described the subject at length, and referred to its literary source in Irving, concluding: 'If we compare the picture with preceding works in which children are the actors, the preference will be undoubtedly given to the latter; but this is still a most valuable and masterly composition'. The painting was discussed at some length again when it was exhibited in Paris in 1855, and also when it was given to South Kensington by Sheepshanks two years later. French critics particularly admired 'a quiet, almost serious aspect of caricature ... a life-like reality' (Maxime du Camp, quoted in the Art Journal 1856), and 'a biblical seriousness, which never abandons the English', 'faithfully representing nature' (Le Moniteur, quoted in the Art Journal 1855).
A replica was in the collection of John Tyson in Liverpool and was engraved by H Bourne for the Art Journal in 1867 (facing p100); it does not appear in the catalogue of his sale at Christie's 1 June 1872. According to Redford (Sales) (II, p127), 'the first study' for the painting was in Mrs Tyson's sale at Christie's 22 June 1872 and fetched the great sum of £766 l0s. 'An admirable finished study' was in the George R Burnett sale at Christie's 24 March 1860 (51). 'A sketch for the celebrated picture' was in the Matthew T Shaw sale at Christie's 20 March 1880 (106); no size was given in the catalogue, but Redford (Sales) records it as '8 by 16 inches'. Another version
was recorded in an English private collection in 1931. An adaptation of the composition, signed by John Watkins Chapman (a genre painter and engraver exhibiting 1853-1903), 71.6 X 92.2 cm (28 ¼ × 36 ¼ ins), was sold at Christie's 5 June 1981 (68). A similar but simpler composition, 'Practising for a Village Concert', signed with Webster's monogram and dated 1866, (22 X 34 ½ ins), was exhibited at the RA in 1867 (371; see the
comments in the Athenaeum 18 May 1867, p667), and was sold at Christie's 22 March 1985 (61). A watercolour version, attributed to Webster and described as a replica, was sold at Christie's 12 June 1973 (238, 57.1 X 87
cm/22 ½ × 34 ¼ ins).
The popularity of the painting is attested by various notes on the Departmental files reporting the survival, for example, of two of the kerchiefs worn in the picture (in the 1930s), and of the musical instruments (in the 1920s). The work has also been much reproduced; only a selection of references can be made below, and others range from the Evening News of 16 March 1929 to the detail on the cover of the Penguin paperback edition in 1967 of George Eliot's Silas Marner.

EXH: RA 1847 (104); Exposition Universelle Paris 1855 (956, lent by Sheepshanks); Royal]ubilee Exhibition Manchester, 1887; Music and Painting Norwich Castle Museum 1961 (33)
LIT: Athenaeum 15 May 1847, p527; Examiner 1847, p357; Art Union 1847, p188; G Waagen Treasures of Art in Great Britain 1854 Il, p299; Art Journal 1855, pp297-8, 1856, p78, 1857, p240, 1867, pl00; A Dayot La Peinture Anglaise Paris 1908, p224; E B Chancellor Walks Among London's Pictures 1910, p257; R Conyers Morrell The Romance of our Old English Choirs nd [1934] pp12-4; O Aubrat La Peinture du Genre en Angleterre ... Paris nd [1934] repr pl xii:
N Boston 'Music of the Eighteenth-century Village Church' Architectural Journal XCIX, 1943, p62
REPR: P Ditchfield The Parish Clerk 1907; The Times special Church and Empire number 25 June 1930, pxxi; Methodist Times Christmas supplement 1933; Church Monthly February 1934; The Listener 30 January 1935, p186; T Boase English Art 1800-1870 1959, p96; The Chorister's Diary 1960

Ronald Parkinson"
100 Great Paintings in The Victoria & Albert Museum. London: V&A, 1985, p.144
The following is the full text of the entry:

"Thomas Webster RA, 1800-1886
British School
THE VILLAGE CHOIR
Exhibited RA 1847
Oil on panel, 59 X 90 cm
FA.222. Sheepshanks Gift.

This painting has been on exhibition at the V&A almost from the day the Museum first opened its doors to the public. It is a much loved work and is splendidly documented.

It was painted for John Sheepshanks, the Leeds cloth manufacturer who gave his large collection of modern British paintings to the Museum in 1857. Webster's inspiration was a passage in Washington Irving's The Sketch Book (1820) which tells a delightful story about an old-time village choir. Thomas Webster was himself first destined for a musical career, and sang as a chorister at St George's Chapel, Windsor, before turning to painting. He became an RA in 1846 and belongs stylistically to the group of English genre painters who, like Sir David Wilkie before them, applied the methods of 17th-century Dutch painting to contemporary social scenes.

Webster found his scene in All Saints Church, Bow Brickhill, Buckinghamshire (although he altered the architecture to suit his composition) and drew his individual figures from the villages nearby. The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1847 and was described as follows in The Examiner:

'One hears the sound of each performer's voice; the growl of the basses and the ringing of the tenors; the conceited village clerk giving the time with an extended palm and clearly violating it with mouth agape, the spectacled and toothless admirer whispering in his ear, the waspish look of the violon-cello, who feels that his art has not had fair play, the hearty intonation of the fat farmer in the background, the emphatic feebleness of the smock-frock - all are excellent. The quaint prettiness of the little girls in front, too, with the boy friends in each other's grasp, and the tidy young couple singing off the same book behind, carry us out of the region of mere laughter into that of gentle character and homely English romance.'

When it was shown in the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855 the painting also found favour with Théophile Gautier and Maxime du Camp (associate of the great realist Flaubert). The painting belongs in the era following the Reform Act of 1832 and coincides with the great period of Dickens. (Webster exhibited Dotheboys Hall in 1848). Such choirs fell away as organs and harmoniums were installed in churches, a transition recorded by Thomas Hardy - recalling his childhood as a chorister in the 1840s - in Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). As was said of Webster in Men of the Time (1856): 'By and by his works will be historical, in addition to their other merits'.

Mark Haworth-Booth"
ed. Carol Thompson, The Cranbrook Colony. Fresh Perspectives Wolverhampton: Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-947642-28-0.

Exhibition History

The Cranbrook Colony: Fresh Perspectives (Wolverhampton Art Gallery 04/12/2010-26/02/2011)
A Grand Design - The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Victoria & Albert Museum 12/10/1999-16/01/2000)

Materials

Oil paint; Panel

Techniques

Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Men; Women; Churches; Children; Figures (representations); Musicians; Musical instruments; Arches; Carving; Buckinghamshire; Interior views; Singers; All Saint's Church

Categories

Religion; Paintings; Musical instruments

Collection code

PDP

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Qr_O18124
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