Irish Fiddles and The Art Institute

citherviolMFABoston pochette

The Art Institute’s big special exhibit opening today – St. Patrick’s Day – is called, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840.  There was a member preview yesterday, so I went with a friend to see what they’ve come up with.  Ireland is a brand new exhibit curated by the Art Institute; I’m not sure whether it will travel on from here, but generally when a big museum takes the time to put something like this together they send it on the road, so I expect so.  Look for it in your neck of the woods over the next couple of years!

Music is a big part of the story the exhibit tells – the harp factors heavily into Irish lore and art and design.  Some of the loveliest objects in the collection are harps, and the most stunning painting in the warren of galleries is the first one visitors encounter walking into the space – an 1801 work by Robert Fagan, Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia, which depicts a woman with a harp.  Many of the other paintings gracing the walls are by Italian, French, and other Europeans, which well demonstrates the lack of classical artistic education happening in Ireland at the time.  If you were wealthy enough to commission a portrait you paid a classically trained European to come out and paint it.  The famous George Washington portraitist Gilbert Stuart’s work was well-represented, for example, and there was even a lovely portrait of a wealthy Irish Quaker man by Jacques Louis David.

But my favorite part of the exhibit was learning about pochette, or “kit” violins as well as the cither viol, a multi-stringed (10) instrument popular in the 18th century that’s also known as a sultana.  The exhibit billed them as precursors to the Irish fiddle, but violins existed at the time, so I don’t really know how to reconcile that.  No photography was permitted in the galleries (I tried!).  Both the pochette and the sultana were attributed to Perry and Wilkinson, prominent makers working in Dublin in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I’ve learned a little more about Perry and Wilkinson on a wonderful Japanese site I just discovered this morning.  Perry was the main maker, and he was joined by his son in law Wilkinson as the business expanded.  The site claims Perry was the master, while Wilkinson was the business brain.  The instruments were well-wrought, and the gallery featured piped in music of the type that might have been produced from the instruments at the time.

The Sultana pictured above is a 1794 model Perry and Wilkinson housed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  I daresay the one I saw yesterday was a bit more lovely.  The kit violin, or “pochette” that’s pictured is actually a little lovelier than the one I saw yesterday, and is available from John D. Johnston in Australia.  Plenty of folks continue to keep the world of pochette/kit violins going – their creation and playing are hobbyist pursuits to this day.  Interested hobbyists can purchase kits to be assembled at home.  They were created originally as travel violins.

Thanks for reading.


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