Music in the life and work of J.S. Sargent

'Music and Portraiture: Reflections on the Work of John Singer Sargent', Sixth Biennial International Conference on Music in 19th-Century Britain, University of Birmingham, July 2007; Institute of Historical Research, London, November 2007; revised for University of Sheffield, December 2007, and Birkbeck College London, April 2009 

This presentation took as its starting-point some 20 images of musicians drawn or painted by John Singer Sargent between the late 1880s and 1918. Most are of performers or composers well known in Britain, from Gabriel Fauré, Charles Martin Loeffler, Percy Grainger and Walter Parratt to Elsie Swinton, Ethyl Smyth, Blanche Marchesi and Leonora Speyer – not forgetting George Henschel, Mabel Batten, an old Joachim and a young Heifetz. Whether charcoal sketches or full-length oils, together they make an impressive gallery evoking both the celebrated and the aspiring. Each picture captures a particular moment and tells its own fascinating story.

A deeper view of Sargent’s engagement with music emerges from his methods in portrait painting – he kept a Bechstein near the easel – as well as from his personal responses, eclectic tastes and considerable piano technique. Wagner, Albéniz and Gottschalk were among his passions, for example, and he was an ardent champion of Fauré’s music in England. More revealing still is the circle of impresarios, writers and musical patrons – real concert-goers – who sat to Sargent, at his behest or their own.

What was the function of a Sargent portrait in this world, and what cultural value does it have now? In exploring relationships between his sitters, and between their musical and other interests, the talk highlighted not only material exchanges between high art and serious music in this period, but Sargent’s unique contribution to rising aesthetic perceptions of music in Britain more broadly.

'a simply splendid lecture ... immensely interesting' 

David Patmore, University of Sheffield

'it worked brilliantly'

Richard Ormond, art historian

and great-nephew of Sargent

For a published version of some of the ideas in this talk, see my article 'Art Music: John Singer Sargent as Listener, Practitioner, Performer and Patron', Visual Culture in Britain 19/1 (2018),

The text is also freely downloadable here.

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