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Frederick Kerseboom 1632-1693
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Frederick Kerseboom 1632-1693

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Full length portrait of Sir John Langham 4th Bart. as a boy aged 12 playing a bass Viola-da-gamba on a portico.

 

Oil painting on canvas 56 x 41 inches, and contained in a fine carved and gilded early Georgian frame by Thomas Vialls (1719-1781) at the “Golden Head” Great Newport Street, London where he lived 1754-66, and was the neighbour of Sir Joshua Reynolds

Signed and dated 1683

Provenance: Painted for the sitter’s father Sir William Langham, 3rd bart., and thence by family descent at Cottesbrooke Hall Northamptonshire and subsequently at Tempo Manor County Fermanagh until acquired by private treaty from Sir James Langham (dec’d) by the present owner 2005.

Literature: Country Life, 19th February 1970, page 436 “Tempo Manor”
Sir Ellis Waterhouse Dictionary of 16th and 17th century British Painters (Antique Collectors’ Club 1988) page 148.

“What may well be his masterpiece.........is John Langham aged 12 (1683) playing his viola da gamba” (Sir Ellis Waterhouse, op. cit)

Tabitha Barber of the Tate Gallery, who has examined the painting in the original, confirms that this is an autograph painting by the artist, and will include it in her forthcoming publication on the Kerseboom family of painters.

 

Frederick Kerseboom (the name means cherry-tree) was born in Germany at Solingen in the Rhineland in 1632. He studied under Charles Le Brun in Paris before moving to Rome in about 1665, where he stayed for the next fourteen years (two of them with Poussin). He travelled to England in the early 1680’s, perhaps enticed by the demise of the all-pervasive Sir Peter Lely, which had left the London art-scene leaderless, though more probably by the encouragement given to more Catholic tastes by the court of Kings Charles II. If his idea was to persuade the English to buy his style of Baroque subject-piece, he must have rapidly become disillusioned. Inevitably, the English wanted portraits and little else, and for this type of painting Kerseboom received much more encouragement. His clientèle were aristocrats of the middle rank, and he seems to have some several subjects in the Midland Counties during the 1680’s.

The daring and innovative informal composition of a boy of twelve playing the viola-da-gamba finds few parallels in British art of the 17th century, save perhaps, analogously, for a pair of paintings of perhaps a decade earlier by Sir Peter Lely, as comparison with the two egregiously fine and rare portraits formerly in the McDonald collection show.

The reign of Charles II marked a huge revival of interest in the polite arts in England, and the playing of an instrument became the hallmark of the education of a young person of quality. The boom in music performance was supported by the publication of numerous tutorial books, largely published by John, and later Henry, Playford:

 

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The second part of Musick’s Hand-maid (Henry Playford, 1689) the engraved frontispiece, signed by the elusive William Vaughan, shows young people playing and singing: a sharp contrast to the Cromwellian years. This first edition of 1689 contained simple pieces by Purcell and Dr Blow appropriate to the levels of skill of young amateurs.

 

Sir John Langham, 4th bart., was the son and heir of Sir William Langham, 3rd bart., (1631-1701) and his third wife (m.1666) Martha Polhill . He was born in 1670 into a family equally noted for its loyalty to the crown as to its Presbyterian interests in religion. Sir John great-grandfather, also Sir John (1584-1671) and the first baronet, had amassed a considerable fortune in the City of London where he was a Turkey merchant, trading with the Levant. He lived and died in the opulent and ancient surroundings of Crosby Hall in the City, where he turned over the great hall of his house to be used for Presbyterian worship. The wealth of this merchant was used to acquire large land holdings in his native county of Northamptonshire at Cottesbrooke, which remained the family seat for over 200 years.

Sir John Langham inherited the baronetcy on the death of his father in 1701, and by 1703 had become the Sheriff of Northamptonshire. He married twice: first to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Samwell and secondly to Maria, coheir of the 1st Viscount Cobham. He died in 1747 and was succeeded by his son James by his first wife.

The viola da gamba, or viol, is a bowed string instrument. Similar to the cello, the viol, or viola da gamba, is played between the legs (hence the name 'viola da gamba', literally 'leg-viol'). While it is not a direct ancestor of the violin, there is some kinship between the two instrument families. The viol first appeared in Europe in the late 15th century and subsequently became one of the most popular Renaissance and Baroque instruments. Viols were heard primarily in ensemble, or consort, music. Viol music was heard all over Europe and England. England, in particular, has a very rich history of viol composers and performers. By about 1540, Henry VIII had engaged a complete consort of Italian players. This royal patronage may have inspired an English school of performance and composition which, fuelled by remarkable composers such as Byrd, Jenkins, William Lawes and finally Purcell, continued to thrive long after the viol had been superseded by the violin on the Continent.

The viols have a subdued, mellow tone, best heard in combination with other viols. The blending of harmonies, intricate rhythms and tone quality can be most appreciated in a small space. As the popularity of violin grew throughout the 17th century, the viol could no longer compete. The violin, with a larger sound and the capability of being heard in the concert halls, became the première instrument of choice.

The present painting was executed in 1683, at the end of the long domination of the Viol over the violin and, subsequently viola and 'cello. Dr Thomas Munck points out “pictures of English viol players....are rare even for the later 17th century, and this one looks like a very fine piece. I have never seen it before. If the lad is only 12 years old, the viol must be relatively small - no doubt a small division bass viol such as was used commonly in the Restoration period, somewhat smaller (string length typically 68-70 cm) than the traditional bass instruments used until the 1640s. Several distinguished English makers produced such instruments in the 1670s and 80s - and this could be one of them, judging from details such as the inlay on the tail-piece and on the lower part of the fingerboard, the purfling on the body and tail-piece (presumably also on the fingerboard, though I cannot quite make it out), the shape of the pegs, etc. The carved head looks wonderful - I cannot make it out quite well enough to see if it is as pointed as that of Charles I, but am I right in thinking that it looks slightly agonised?

The playing posture looks quite laid-back, with the viol at a significant angle to the body, and consequent angling of the bow to avoid hitting the knee - Christopher Simpson might not have approved, but then it is not his book of divisions on the stool! The left hand position looks very accurate, and the bow is typical of the kind also shown in continental portraits of this period. Altogether a wonderful painting”

 

While there seems to no surviving English Viol with a head of Charles I on the scroll, that one such should have existed is scarcely in doubt. Charles I had been executed in 1649, and his death caused considerable amounts of misery amongst the largely Royalist music community. Many musicians lost their places as the King's Musick (for secular pieces) and the Chapel Royal (for religious music) were closed down or their activities severely curtailed under the disapproving Puritan Commonwealth:

‘all organs, and the frames or cases wherein they stand in all churches or chapels aforesaid, shall be taken away, and utterly defaced, and none other hereafter set up in their places’4

A few more fortunate musicians kept their jobs and continued to be paid throughout the Interregnum, but many others were much less fortunate. Some, like William Lawes, Christopher Gibbons and Henry Cooke, joined the Royalist Army and others joined the Court in Exile (eg Arthur Philips), but many scratched a living in the houses of the middle-classes, eking out a living teaching the children:

' When most other good arts languished musick held up her head, not at Court nor (in ye cant of those times) profane theatres, but in private society, for many chose to fidle at home, than to goe out & be knokt on the head abroad.’

Cromwell himself was not averse to music at all, and indeed he kept a small ensemble for his and his family's entertainment or improvement, led by John Hingeston, but the forces available to him were not one tenth those of King Charles. Hingeston has spent his early years as an apprentice, and later as music-master, (1621-1643) to the Earls of Cumberland, before he taught members of Cromwell's family and two boy-trebles: such were the shifts to which musicians were constrained in these years.

Even after the Restoration things did not improve too rapidly: in his Diary for 19th December 1666, Samuel Pepys remarked

‘Many of the Musique were ready to starve, they being five years behindhand for their wages; nay Evans, the famous man upon the Harp, having not his equal in the world, did the other day die for mere want… [Mr. Hingston] says all must come to ruin at this rate and I believe him.’

Hingeston himself had already complained of the dilapidation of the music structure of the country in 1656:

By reason of the late dissolucion of the Quires in the Cathedralls where the study & practice of the Science of Musick was especially cherished, Many of [its] skilfull Professors . . . have during the laste Warrs and troubles dyed in want and there being now noe preferrment or Encouragement in the way of Musick, Noe man will breed his Child in it, soe that it needes bee that the Science itself must dye in this Nacion . . . or at least it will degenerate much from the perfeccion it lately attained unto.6

Other musicians expressed their dismay at the decline of music in their compositions: Thomas Tompkins' exquisitely beautiful A sad Pavan for these distracted times - 30th January 1649 eloquently sets out in music a Royalist composer's melancholy reaction to the execution of his King (and employer). Many musicians must have shared his emotions, though perhaps few dared so pointedly to express them. But Tompkins was at the end of his long life (he died aged 84 on 9 June 1656) and perhaps cared little about the risk to his person from the zealots and bigots of the new regime.

By the 1680's, though, conditions for professional musicians had improved out of all recognition, as new demands for their services in such areas as the Theatre, the renewed Choirs and Chapels and, especially as educators amongst the merchant class brought about a sea change in their fortunes

The inclusion of a Royal head, then, on a Viol which may be dated to c.1670 is wholly reasonable, and we may reasonably conclude that this is an illustration of an actual instrument. It may well have been deliberately commissioned by the Langham family of Cottesbrooke: they were themselves ardent Royalists: the first baronet, Sir John, was twice imprisoned under Cromwell: he was sent to the Tower for two years in 1647, and was not released until after the King's execution. He was chosen to be one of the citizens of London deputed to implore Charles II to return from the Hague, where he was knighted on 25th May 1660 as, indeed on the same day was his son Sir James, the 2nd Baronet, as a reward for his loyalty to the Crown,7