Thursday, September 9, 2010
John P. Burr - The Peepshow
Price Realized £41,825
signed and dated 'J. Burr./1864' (lower right) and signed, indistinctly inscribed and dated '..../by/John Burr/1864' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
30 x 25 1/8 in. (76.2 x 63.8 cm.)
John Burr studied at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh in the 1850s with his younger brother Alexander and exhibited numerous works at the Royal Scottish Academy before both moved to London in 1861. He concentrated mainly on Scottish genre subjects and the poems of Robert Burns, producing many domestic scenes with children, such as Grandfather's Return, Children of the Sea, A Watercress Boy, A Market Girl and The School House.
Itinerant tradesmen and showmen were popular subjects for artists striving to convey 'modern life'. This painting shows a form of street entertainment which appealed to the innate curiosity of children and adults alike. On the walls and back of the peepshow were painted events from history, novels and plays such as Napoleon's Return from Elba, Napoleon at Waterloo, The Death of Lord Nelson, The Forty Thieves, The Devil and Doctor Faustus or The Queen embarking to start for Scotland, from the Dockyard at Woolwich. The arrival of such travelling showmen generated considerable excitement, and according to Henry Mayhew who interviewed one such performer, in good weather they might earn three or four shillings per day (London Labour and the London Poor, 1861).
In this work, the children are contemplating viewing The Babes in the Wood, a popular yet tragic English ballad which was popular both in the operatic and literary traditions. Scores of illustrations depicting this tale appeared between 1800 and 1870, including Lady Waterford's 1849 edition of The Babes in the Wood. The children are understandably cautious and hesitant, even the dog appears to be wary of the colourful box and its hidden spectacles.
Many artists recorded this subject of now vanished entertainers, who were already beginning to diminish in the Victorian period. Edward John Cobbett's The Showman (Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery) depicts three children crowding round the 'theatre' peering through the holes in the midst of a rural lane. Thomas Webster also painted a peepshow scene of the Battle of Waterloo in 1864 and Punch and Judy were treated by Arthur Boyd Houghton and Charles Hunt. In 1857 Matthias Robinson painted two examples of this genre, Watching the Show and Watching Jack the Giant Killer, which showed more ostensibly amused members of the audience reacting to the saga unfolding in the peepshow.
David and Francina Irwin remarked on this picture that it 'presents a fine contrast between the chill atmosphere of a thaw and the gay colours of the peepshow booth. The description of surfaces such as the melting snow on the pantiles is most beautifully handled. This type of genre recalls Walter Geikie's etchings of Edinburgh street-life, there is no pathos or other sentiment added to the carefully observed scene.'
Burr also exhibited a painting of the same title at the Royal Academy in 1864 which was sold at Christie's East, New York, 20 April 2001. In this a crowd of eleven children has formed around a booth showing the 'Battle of Kassasin', beside a row of thatched cottages. The Athenaeum described the exhibit in detail 'See the fun of the child who carries the jug of beer and longs to stop, and the cleverly-put point of character in the young nurse who, restrained from her own curiosity, holds up her baby-charge to look through one of the spy-holes of the theatre; see also the figures of the butcher's boy, who stands near the front of the picture, and of his companions who gather round.'
This was the first painting that Malcolm Forbes bought from The Fine Art Society, London, in 1970. For a recollection please refer to the essay by Simon Edsor entitled A Dealer Recalls....
at 1:00 PM