Thomas Gainsborough was a man of many talents.
Renowned as one of 18th-century England’s greatest portraitists and landscape painters, the artist was also an avid musician who owned five viola da gambas (a precursor to the cello) crafted by leading instrument makers. As he once wrote in a letter to a friend, “I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint [landscapes] and enjoy ... life in quietness and ease.”
Per Maureen Buja of Interlude, the painter counted Johann Christian Bach, son of the better-known J.S. Bach, and Carl Friedrich Abel, a German composer and performer, among his close friends. (He painted portraits of both men in the mid-1770s, at the height of their careers.) Through these connections, Gainsborough also became acquainted with Antonín Kammel, a Czech musician “who was well known in his day but … largely forgotten today because there [wasn’t] a picture of him,” says English composer and researcher Andrew Baker to the Observer’s Dalya Alberge.
Thanks to a chance find, music and art lovers alike can now put a face to the composer’s name. As the Observer reports, art historian Hugh Belsey has identified a painting that sold at auction last year for £2,500 (roughly $3,400) as a genuine Gainsborough portrait of Kammel. The artwork, which shows its subject staring off into the distance while holding a scroll of music, was previously titled simply British School.
“This is a really exciting addition to [Gainsborough’s] work,” Belsey tells the Observer. “It is so rare to find a picture that’s totally unknown.”
Given Gainsborough’s stature among art collectors, the rediscovered work’s true value is likely closer to £1 million (around $1.3 million)—more than 400 times its 2020 sale price, notes Charlotte McLaughlin for the East Anglian Daily Times.
Conservator Simon Gillespie, whose studio has also helped identify overlooked paintings by Sandro Botticelli and Artemisia Gentileschi, removed layers of varnish, dirt and overpaint to reveal the artist’s original colors and composition.
“If you have looked at Gainsborough’s work for as long as I have then it’s like looking at your mother’s handwriting,” Belsey tells the East Anglian. “The pose, the palette, the relationship between the figure and the size of the canvas all pointed to his authorship.”
Belsey dates the portrait to 1768 or 1769, when Gainsborough likely attended concerts held by Kammel in the English city of Bath. In addition to moving in the same circles as Bach and Abel, the pair had a mutual friend in George Pitt, 1st Baron Rivers, an English diplomat and politician. Gainsborough painted Pitt in 1769 and may have encouraged Kammel to similarly commission a portrait, per the East Anglian.
According to Baker’s self-published biography of Kammel, the composer was born in Běleč, a small village east of Prague, in April 1730. He honed his musical talents under the tutelage of violinist Giuseppe Tartini before moving to Britain, where he balanced his creative aspirations with a position as a timber merchant, in 1765.
Kammel quickly immersed himself in England’s musical scene, forming friendships with prominent performers and even crossing paths with an 8-year-old Wolfgang Mozart, whom the Czech composer said “plays the instrument in a very virtuoso manner, composes like an angel, … [and] has the intelligence which one always associates with a man of 40 or 50 years.” He penned a wide range of works, including violin sonatas, trios and concertos, and performed regularly at music festivals, as well as private and public concerts. Kammel remained in England until his death in 1784 at age 54.
In his biography, Baker argues that the Gainsborough portrait clearly shows Kammel as an “inspired composer rather than jobbing performer.”
Speaking with the Observer, the researcher adds, “The important feature of the portrait is that it shows Kammel as a composer, holding music rather than his violin. This is the composer as he wants us to see him. It’s a romantic image.”
Gainsborough, for his part, was beloved by England’s elite, including Queen Charlotte and George III, for his extremely lifelike portraits. Privately, however, the artist much preferred painting bucolic landscapes—a penchant reflected in his letter about the viola da gamba.
As Belsey tells the Observer, “Gainsborough had a great deal of interest in musicians and likened a picture to a piece of music, once writing: ‘One part of a Picture ought to be like the first part of a Tune; that you can guess what follows, and that makes the second part of the Tune, and so I’ve done.’”