The Noble Musician

POMPEO BATONI (1708-1787)

John Montagu, Marquess of Monthermer (1758)

Oil on canvas (96.5 x 71 cm)

The Duke of Buccleuch


In my previous post, The Marquess of Monthermer I mentioned that the young Lord Brudenell commissioned portraits from Batoni and Mengs. Whereas the latter chose to portray the English nobleman as a gentleman-scholar Batoni portrayed him as an amateur musician. Under the Hannoverian dynasty, music became fashionable among the English upper classes. However, some old-fashioned aristocrats like Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) wrote and spoke against the, in their opinion, vulgar and demining, practice of playing musical instruments. In one of his famous Letters to his son, he wrote:

If you love music, hear it; go to operas, concerts and pay fiddlers to play for you; but I insist upon you neither piping or fiddling yourself. It puts a gentleman in a very frivolous, contemptible light. Brings him into a great deal of bad company; and takes up a great deal of time, which might be much better employed. Few things would mortify me more than to see you bearing part in a concert, with a fiddle under your chin or pipe in your mouth.” (1749)

However, by the XVIIIth century, playing music like painting, particularly in watercolours, had become a gentlemanly pursuit although practised by a minority. In fact, there are very few portraits of noblemen depicted as amateur musicians, and that is what makes this portrait such an extraordinary work of art, besides its aesthetic merits.

Contemporary written accounts complained of the arrogance and little talent of upper-class amateur musicians. Often the most frustrated of these expressions came from professional musicians who supplemented their income by giving lessons to the amateurs and by playing alongside them in the musical functions organized by their aristocratic patrons. English composer William Jackson (1733-1803) wrote: “How many a concert is spoiled by gentlemen whose taste is to supply their deficiency of practice and knowledge?” (quoted by Richard Leppert in Image and Music, page 11). We will never know to what extent these feelings were motivated by a genuine love of music or resentment at the snobbishness displayed by some of their employers.

In the case of John Montagu, future Marquess of Monthermer, the love for music was sincere and heartfelt. It was a feeling shared by his family who, like most of the aristocratic households at the time, actively encouraged musical performances. For many noble families, experiences of hearing music within and outside the home were intimately linked to their own activity as performers. Musical training was a central aspect of elite sociability, and although satirical prints gleefully mocked the pretensions of would-be musicians, some aristocratic amateur musicians achieved considerable
expertise within the domestic settings that were the only appropriate showcase for their skills.

Batoni’s superb talent as a portraitist is evident here. His skill at depicting the different textures of fabrics is astonishing. We can tell that the blue coat John Montagu is wearing is made of velvet and that his shirt is of the finest linen. The flesh tones are as natural and life-like as they can be. The music sheet depicted has been identified as Corelli’s violin sonatas Opus 5. The choice of a mandolin as a favourite instrument is very unusual for a man since it was customary for men to play the viol, the violin or the harpsichord, whereas the mandolin, the lute and the guitar were considered the most suitable instruments for ladies.



John Marquis of Monthermer (Boughton House)

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