Sight and music

A multi-sensory experience.

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Portrait of Thomas Hurst
Portrait of Thomas Hurst
by Benjamin Vandergucht

Before it came into the museum this happy picture used to belong to the folk singer Roger Whittaker. We suspect he valued it as a musical picture, but to us the spectacles on the forehead are far more interesting.

This is, therefore, an instance where the very significance of a painting has changed simply as a result of a change of ownership. Eighteenth century artists often painted musical pictures as allegories on the sense of hearing, so in this picture we can claim to have two senses, sight and hearing, depicted together.

There are numerous other musical connections to be found within our collections...

The most simple examples are of musicians (professional or amateur) appearing in the decoration of optical devices.

Detail of magnifier case

Here we show a detail from a late 18th / early 19th century silver reading glass with an oval magnifying lens and an integral Mother-of-Pearl handle which is engraved on one side with a deer-hunting scene and on the other side with a man playing a musical instrument (possibly some kind of flute) whilst his female companion is spinning. Although such decorative details may be idealised or anachronistic they give at least some insight into other areas of social life in the period.

Detail from a chatelaine clip showing a flute player

On a similar note (pardon the pun) this chatelaine clip to the right, which is in the collection because it was used to secure various optical trinkets, is emblazoned with an enamel picture of a flute player.

Snuff box lid

Strings feature on our next item: 'La Bourbonnaise' is a round papier-mache snuff box with separate painted lid depicting a man in enormous oval spectacles, playing a violin. Made by Stobwasser in Germany in the 19th century, there are various examples of these snuff boxes with decorative designs of interest to collectors of ophthalmic antiques. If this man is playing by ear, what use were his large specs to him? We would do well to remember that the visually impaired have often made a living through music-making and singing as well as activites requiring acute hearing such as piano tuning.You may click on the image to enlarge it.

Guitar lorgnette

To the right, the rare folding lorgnette has an integral case fashioned in the shape of a musical instrument, suggestive of the sort of occasion when you might wish to be seen flourishing such a device. (circa 1840-60). It is of such intricate workmanship that it must have required excellent vision on the part of the jeweller who made it. It shows a form of guitar of the 'transitional' period, with a modern-looking sounding board but angled pegboard with rear pegs.

Musical staff near vision test

Written music has been used as a near vision test for many years as with this mid 20th century example. Sometimes such tests just have random notes to detect if the reader can discern them; other times the test is a snippet from a recognisable tune.

Dutch morality painting
'Soo de Oude Songhen Soo Pepen de Jongen'
after Jacob Jordaens, late 17th century

We have come a long way from earlier times when puritanical moralising against music and merriment portrayed the playing of instruments (and wearing spectacles) in a negative light. The Museum's picture As the Old Sang, So the Young Pipe is the perfect example of this point. This morality painting from the early 17th century Netherlands features old people wearing spectacles (to show how corrupted they have become) singing at a feasting table in a bad example to the youngsters present who pipe away at instruments thus demonstrating that they will grow up to be as bad as their elders.

The artist of this picture has clearly worked after the earnest Calvinist convert Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). The Flemish proverb 'As the old bird sang, so the young one twitters' (meaning that children take after their parents) inspired several of Jordaens’s most famous pictures. He followed the modified version of the saying which appeared in a moralising book by the Dutch poet and humanist, Jacob Cats, the Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt of 1632, (which substituted for piepen (‘twitter’) the word pepen or pijpen (‘pipe’ or ‘play the flute’), and actually inscribed it on the earliest securely dated version of the theme, a composition of 1638: [S]OO D’OVDE SONGEN SOO PEPEN DE IONGE’ (‘as the old sang, so the young pipe’). Jordaens was clearly attached to the theme (or, at least, his public liked it), and repeated it often from the 1630s and turned to it again in 1644, when he was commissioned to supply cartoons for a series of eight tapestries illustrating Proverbs. The picture was usually painted with a pendant, showing the boisterous festivities of Epiphany (6 January) and entitled The King Drinks.