Female violinists of 18th-century England: Portrait of a lady holding a violin

Figure 4b Title_page_six_sonates_for_two_violines_by_Maddalena_Sirmen

Taking a Regency portrait of an unknown violinist as his starting point, Kevin MacDonald investigates the lives and careers of Louise Gautherot and other female violinists of Georgian England

Five years ago, in a Surrey saleroom, I came across a Regency portrait of a female violinist by the great Anglo-Irish portrait artist Adam Buck signed and dated ‘London, 1805’. This launched a search to find out just who the depicted artist might be, and ultimately opened my eyes to a neglected world of female concert violinists in Georgian England.

Beginning with the image itself (left), a watercolour/pastel with the blue sky typical of so many Buck portraits, we see a standing figure in an elegant white gown typical of the Regency period. She is of uncertain age, but certainly not a youth, perhaps in her thirties or forties with no wisps of grey in her hair. She holds an Amati-esque violin. On the table before her is a bow with an ivory frog and adjuster of a style used on ‘Cramer’ bows by the Tourtes and others in the 1770s and 80s. It is tightened and has no visible camber (see close-up, right). All in all, a trifle ‘old-fashioned’ for 1805. On a music stand is a book opened to its title page which comprises an illustration of a classically rendered woman holding a lyre and the word ‘CONCERTOS’ at the top.

Generally speaking, we know that Buck painted the bon ton of the Regency world, the aristocracy, the celebrities. Who could this concerto-playing figure be? I began researching female violinists giving concerts in Georgian London and there were more than you might think, all with fascinating stories. Yet, without exception, they were born on the Continent, and either only toured in Britain, or were blown by the chaos of the French Revolution to relatively permanent relocation in England…

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