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Oil painting - The Rival Performers
  • The Rival Performers
    John Callcott Horsley, born 1817 - died 1903
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The Rival Performers

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain, uk (painted)

  • Date:

    1839 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    John Callcott Horsley, born 1817 - died 1903 (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on panel

  • Credit Line:

    Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Paintings, room 82, case WEST WALL

Some critics interpreted the subject as a young woman silencing her companion’s flute to listen to the caged bird. Others read it as the bird out-performing the musician. The figures are wearing 17th-century costume and are set in the dining room of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, which Horsley first visited in 1835.

Physical description

Oil painting entitled 'The Rival Performers' depicting a young couple seated in a window of a wood panelled room. The boy is holding a woodwind instrument, poised to play, whilst the girl clasps his wrist, looking up at a canary on a perch in front of them. There is a lute leaning against the wall beneath the bird, and a small pair of scissors and a flower on the floor by the feet of the seated girl.

Place of Origin

Great Britain, uk (painted)


1839 (painted)


John Callcott Horsley, born 1817 - died 1903 (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Oil on panel

Marks and inscriptions

'J C Horsley/PINXIT/1839'


Height: 45.7 cm estimate, Width: 40.6 cm estimate

Object history note

Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

Descriptive line

Oil painting entitled 'The Rival Performers' by John Callcott Horsley. Great Britain, 1839.

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

Parkinson, R., Victoria and Albert Museum, Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860, London: HMSO, 1990, pp. 129-30
The following is the full text of the entry:
"HORSLEY, John Callcott, RA (1817-1903)

Born Brompton, 29 January 1817, the son of the organist and composer William Horsley, and great-nephew of Sir Augustus Wall Callcott RA. Studied at Sass's art school and the RA Schools. Painted portraits, literary and historical subjects, domestic genre (often in historical costume), and rural genre scenes. Exhibited 121 works at the RA between 1839 and 1896, and 11 at the BI 1837-50. Elected ARA 1855, RA 1864. Won prizes in the competitions for the decoration of the Palace of Westminster 1843, 1844 and 1847. Some of his works were engraved; he also contributed etchings to the publications of the Etching Club and drawings to Punch, and in 1843 designed the first Christmas card. Associated with the artist's colony at Cranbrook, Kent, where he bought a house in 1858. At the RA, he was Rector 1875-90 (his campaign against the use of naked models in life classes earned him the soubriquet 'Clothes-Horsley'), Treasurer 1882-97, and initiator and organiser of the first Winter Exhibitions of old masters. Died Kensington, 18 October 1903. The painter Walter Charles and architect Gerald Callcott were his sons.

LIT: Art Journal 1857, pp181-4; Illustrated London News 24 October 1903, p608 (obit with photograph); J C Horsley Recollections of a Royal Academican 1903 (referred to below as Recollections); A Greg The Cranbrook Colony exhibition catalogue Wolverhampton Art Gallery 1977

The Rival Performers
FA83 Neg 59371
Panel, 45.7 x 40.6 cm (18 x 16 ins)
Signed and dated 'J C Horsley/PINXIT/1839' on music sheet br
Sheepshanks Gift 1857

Exhibited at the BI in 1839, the size given in the catalogue as 26 by 24 inches. According to the Recollections, this was the artist's first exhibited subject picture, and was bought at the BI by John Sheepshanks.

The Athenaeum critic described the subject:

[The boy is] silenced by his sister that they may listen to a canary on the opposite wall ... There is a sweet old English quaintness - a genuine touch of Herrick's spirit - about this picture, making it attractive; but not so enchanting as to blind us to faults in its drawing, - whether in the upturned throat and bust of pretty Mistress Alice, or in the whole figure of her brother, with his very long legs and very short arms. The colouring of the flesh, too is factitious; it is pink-and-white porcelain, and not the roses and lilies of England.

The Art Union was more admiring, and interpreted the couple's relationship differently:

[The artist] whose name is pleasantly associated with both painting and music, exhibits a picture in which he has striven to combine the interest of the two. The old poet's story of the nightingale - who strove to out-do the minstrel's song, has evidently suggested the subject ... The picture is finely conceived and very ably executed; the effect of light is very striking, but also very true; the sweet imploring look of the maiden as, with a smile of half wonder and delight, she intreats her lover to save the life of his tiny rival, by relinquishing the contest, is especially happy.

The review concluded that the work was 'one of the most agreeable pictures in the collection; and cannot but secure to the artist another step of promotion in the ranks of fame'.

The Recollections also note that the painting 'attracted [William] Hilton's notice, and on the varnishing day he spoke to me in the kindest way about it, and said he looked to me to be a really successful artist'.

The background setting for the picture is the alcove of the dining-room (constructed 1500-45) of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, where Horsley had first visited and made drawings in 1835. He wrote in the Recollections (p102) that 'I was naturally filled with yearnings to paint pictures, in which I could use as backgrounds the ancient halls and chambers, and I dreamed many a dream of pictures to be, as I sketched diligently the beautiful scenes before me'. Horsley found Haddon Hall 'absolutely unique, and there is nothing like it in the whole world'. The Art Union critic (1844, p21) reviewing an engraving ( Frederick Taylor's 'Morning of the Chase-Haddon Hall in Days of Yore', wrote that the house 'has long been fertile of subject-matter to paintings in both oil and water colour, and it is precisely such a place as a lover of romance would celebrate either in painting or in narrative'. The first of a series of paintings with Haddon settings was 'Rent Day at Haddon Hall' exhibited at the BI in 1837 (182); others are 'Waiting for an Answer' (FA 82 p129), and 'Lady Jane Grey and Roger Ascham' (RA 1853, 171) which shows the same alcove.

A copy in enamels of this work was exhibited by Miss Catherine Baines at the SBA in 1860 (721, present whereabouts unknown).

EXH: BI 1839 (2)

LIT: Athenaeum 9 February 1839, p117; Art Union 1839, p21; Recollections p28"


Oil paint; Panel


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Musical instruments; Scissors; Haddon Hall; Lutes; Oboe; Canaries (birds); Woodwind


Paintings; Musical instruments

Collection code


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