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It is probable that the model for Venus was Miss Mary Ann Kirkley (later Mrs. Searle), the daughter of Sir Joshua’s faithful man servant, Ralph Kirkley, whilst the dark complexion of the piping boy may be attributed to Sir Joshua’s black servant.
Venus and Boy Piping can readily be traced back to Sir Joshua’s studio, although, there have been slight variations in its title (with the girl always being referred to as Venus) and dimensions (depending on whether stretcher of sight size has been quoted).
The painting is in the original frame, and is in remarkably good condition for its age, It was, however, relined during the early part of this century.
In his catalogue, James Northcote R.A. lists Venus and Boy Piping as having been acquired by J.J. Angerstein for the sun of 250 Guineas. This book, first published in 1813 while Sir Joshua’s sister (The Marchioness of Thormond) and many close friends of Sir Joshua were still alive, gives the titles chosen by Sir Joshua himself. J.J. Angerstein undoubtedly sold on Venus and Boy Piping for profit in a similar way to other paintings he acquired from Sir Joshua’s studio.
Graves and Cronin lists the painting as having been the property of Mr. Galbraith of Scotland, Mrs. Worth, S.T. Gooden, Thomas McLean and Leggatt Brothers, before being owned by Mr. Robert English. When Robert English died, this painting was sold by auction at Christie’s who soon afterwards sold it to The Fine Art Society. The painting was sold on to H. Barlow who owned it for many years.
Sir Joshua observed that “no man could produce more than about half a dozen really original works in his lifetime,” and it is known that he only used the word Venus in conjunction with his paintings when he was completely satisfied with the final result. There is no doubt that Venus and Boy Piping, is one of Sir Joshua’s finest “historical and fancy subjects,” being one of only three examples of Venus paintings to be completed by him.
It is known that for major works Sir Joshua would paint two versions of precisely the same subject and design; “not so much for the sake of profit, as for that of improvement.” He believed “a painter should work on them alternately; by which means, if chance produced a lucky hit, as it often does, then, instead of working on the same piece, and perhaps by that means destroy that beauty which chance has given, he should go to the other and improve upon that. Then return again to the first picture, which he might work upon without any fear of obliterating the excellence which chance had given it, having transposed it to the other.” Having finally completed both paintings, Sir Joshua would identify the one he rated most highly by giving it the major title.
In addition to Venus and Boy Piping, Sir Joshua also painted a similar one of the same subject which he entitled Nymph and Boy - fortunately, the two paintings are easily differentiated as the latter canvas is significantly taller and wider. As well as the obvious differences is size, there are marked differences between Sir Joshua’s rendering of the “extending landscape with trees,” and more importantly from an artistic point of view, subtle variations between each canvas as a whole.
This has resulted in a situation where some confusion is possible as both the Nymph and Venus paintings were acquired by J.J. Angerstein direct from Sir Joshua’s studio and both paintings have almost identical frames from the same carvers shop.
Graves and Cronin record that J.J. Angerstein lent the Nymph painting for an exhibition in 1813, with John Angerstein lending it again in 1824 and 1851. When the Nymph painting was some 100 years old, it was acquired by Sir Cuthbert Quilter. Quilter knew Sir Joshua painted more that one version of the subject, and he renamed the Nymph painting , as his personal opinion, it was the best work by Sir Joshua on the subject, However, Quilter was never actually in a position to see the true Venus painting and could only have made an emotional comparison.
Ever since Quilter purchased the Nymph painting, its owners have used the modified title developed by him – Venus and Piping Boy - so as to imply it was the major work, in direct contradiction to the supreme critic of Reynolds’s work, Sir Joshua himself.
J.J. Anderstein Esq.
Mr. Galbraith of Scotland
S.T. Gooden (Later Gooden and Fox)
Thomas McLean Esq.
Robert English Esq.
Robert English Sale, Christies 27.2.1925, lot 54
Mrs. C.R. English (Daughter-in-law of Robert English)
The Fine Art Society
H.G. Barlow Esq.
Birmingham 1934, number: 426 (Lent by Mrs. C.R. English)
Graves Algernon, Cronin William Vine, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A., London 1899, Volume III page 2334 (Illustrated)
Northcote James R.A., The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London 1818, Volume II page 352