Detail from Richard Low by Isaac Beckett, after a painting possibly by John Hayls, published by John Smith, ca. 1681-1688. Dayton C. Miller Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
after a painting possibly by John Hayls, portraitist, 1600?-1679; published by John Smith, painter, draughtsman, and engraver, 1652-1743
A young man is seated on a stone step and leans against a pillar carved with a bas-relief of a pair of actors dancing. He has long curls and wears clothing made of fine fabric -- a linen shirt, a lace jabot, and a jacket with sleeves also trimmed with lace. A long cloak is secured to his left shoulder and cascades over his legs and the steps. He wears delicately-made square-toed boots with lacings and swags of fabric just below the knees. An open score and a piece of paper with an inscription lie before him on the left. A violin, its neck hidden beneath the folds of the young man's clothing, and a recorder are in the left foreground. In the right distance is a scene of a large rock with a stream of water before it. It is very fanciful, as if it is a stage set, and seems to represent a mythological or Arcadian setting in which figures resembling gods relax and play music on an organ and a lyre. A winged horse is on the peak of the rock and two swans are in the water at the far right.
The identity of Richard Low is not certain. In the Rev. Mark Noble's A Biographical History of England..., this particular mezzotint is listed under "Masters of Music" and Richard Low is described as a musician. It is further suggested that he may have been a son or relative of Edward Low (ca. 1610-1682), the organist and master of choristers at Christ Church at Oxford from 1631 onward. This information is also given in John Chaloner Smith's British Mezzotinto Portraits... in the section devoted to the work of the mezzotint engraver, Isaac Beckett. Though Chaloner Smith does not refer to Richard Low as a musician, he does repeat the information from Granger and Noble that Richard may have been a son of Edward Low.
Richard Low does not seem to appear in any standard biographical dictionaries on musicians such as Grove, or even in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There was an actor named "Mr Lowe (or Low)" who flourished between 1683 and 1686 and played small roles in six Restoration plays during these same years. The six Restoration plays in which "Mr Lowe (or Low)" had a role (or roles) are in the collections at the Library of Congress. They were: The Jovial Crew by Richard Brome (1683) in which Low played a Chaplain; The Northern Lass by Richard Brome (1685-1686) in which Low appeared as a Clark; The Bloody Brother by John Fletcher (1685-1686) in which Low played three parts - Rusee, Butler and Verdon; A Commonwealth of Women by John Fletcher (1685-1686) in which Low appeared as the Boatswain; The Banditti by Thomas D'Urfey (1685-1686) in which Low played Domingo; and The Devil of a Wife by Thomas Jevon (1685-1686) in which Low played a Footman. All of the roles acted by Low in these plays were very minor, with very little speaking. None involved the playing of music or singing. Only two had any scenes suggestive of that portrayed in the mezzotint. In The Devil of a Wife, the wife breaks the fiddle of a blind fiddler, but Low did not play the role of a blind fiddler and the scene in the mezzotint does not otherwise match this play in any other details. In A Commonwealth of Women, a story of a sea voyage, there are scenes of an island inhabited by Amazons. The background image in the mezzotint might be interpreted as such an island, but Low's role in this play as a Boatswain did not place him near the island of the Amazons, nor did he play any musical instruments. Thus, Richard Low remains a mystery. He probably was a musician, perhaps the son of Edward Low. He may also have been an actor but, if so, the play and role he may have performed that may be depicted in the Beckett/Smith mezzotint have yet to be discovered.
The mezzotint portraits engraved and/or published by John Smith in the National Portrait Gallery, London, have been catalogued and are available online. The mezzotint of Richard Low (NPG D11698) is considered a "subject print" and has not yet been catalogued fully but, to date, no further information about Richard Low has been discovered. The inscription, "Hays pinx.," probably refers to the portrait painter, John Hayls (1600?-1679).
A description of this scene is given by Nicholas S. Lander in his Web site, Recorder Iconography, which is quoted in part as follows: "Beside him [Richard Low] are a violin with flame-shaped sound-holes and an ivory-mounted baroque recorder, very much like those of Hotteterre or Bressan. In the background is an island with a representation of Apollo and the Muses and Pegasus flying above." The stringed instrument at the left may also be a viola or viola da gamba.
About the Artists
Isaac Beckett, draughtsman and engraver, 1652/53-1688
Isaac Beckett was one of the first British artists to specialize in mezzotint engraving. He taught mezzotint engraving to John Smith (1652-1743), who became one of the most proficient artists in this medium and eventually became a publisher of mezzotints. Beckett's work dates from the period of 1681 to 1688 and, though Beckett himself was a publisher of prints, he and John Smith had a good working relationship and worked in collaboration. Besides portraits, Beckett also produced prints of allegorical and scriptural subjects.
John Smith, painter, draughtsman, engraver and publisher, 1652-1743
John Smith produced about 300 prints between 1683 and 1729. He was known for his perfection of the technique of mezzotint and his meticulous workmanship, and his work was much admired in Britain and on the Continent. Though Smith reproduced the work of many important contemporary British and foreign artists, he reproduced almost exclusively the work of the portrait painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723). He also engraved what are termed "subject plates," that is, prints with subjects other than portraiture.
John Hayls, portraitist, 1600?-1679
John Hayls was a portrait painter. There are five portraits by Hayls in the National Portrait Gallery's collection, an oil painting of Samuel Pepys of 1666 (NPG 211), and several stipple engravings from the 1820s by James Thomson after Hayls' portrait of Elizabeth Pepys (NPG D5507, D5508, and D19863).
- See the Rev. Mark Noble, A Biographical History of England, from the Revolution to the end of George I's reign; being a continuation of the Rev. J. Granger's work: consisting of characters disposed in different classes; and adapted to a methodical catalogue of engraved British heads; interspersed with a variety of anecdotes, and memoirs of a great number of persons, not to be found in any other biographical work. London: Printed for W. Richardson, Strand, 1806. 3 vols. The entry for Richard Low appears in volume 1, p. 204, with footnote. LC call number: DA28.G75. [back to article]
- See John Chaloner Smith British Mezzotinto Portraits; being a descriptive catalogue of these engravings from the Introduction of the Art to the early part of the present Century. Arranged according to the Engravers; the Inscriptions given at full length; and the variations of state precisely set forth; accompanied by biographical notes.... London: Henry Sotheran & Co., 1878-1883. 4 vols. The entry for Richard Low appears under Isaac Beckett, in volume 1, cat. No. 66, pp. 41-42. LC call number: NE265.S6. [back to article]
- He is listed in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, by Philip H. Highfill, Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Langhans. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. See volume 9, p. 369 for a listing of his roles in certain plays. LC call number: PN2597.H5. This source also includes an extensive biography on Edward Lowe [sic], the organist at Christ Church, who may have been Richard Low's father. See the entry on pp. 370-371, which mentions that Edward Lowe had seven sons and three daughters. Only his sons Edward and Charles are named in the biographical entry however. [back to article]
- See "Prints catalogue Smith" at the National Portrait Gallery. [back to article]
- The fact that no more information on Richard Low has been discovered and that the painter may have been John Hayls are courtesy of Paul Cox, Assistant Curator, Archive & Library, National Portrait Gallery (e-mail correspondence, 4 April 2006). [back to article]
- See Nicholas S. Lander, Recorder Iconography, under Hayls. [back to article]
- This information is courtesy of John Montgomery, a luthier in Raleigh, North Carolina, 14 December 2005. [back to article]
- Biographical information on Beckett can be found in John Chaloner Smith British Mezzotinto Portraits; being a descriptive catalogue of these engravings from the Introduction of the Art to the early part of the present Century. Arranged according to the Engravers; the Inscriptions given at full length; and the variations of state precisely set forth; accompanied by biographical notes.... London: Henry Sotheran & Co., 1878-1883. 4 vols. The biographical entry for Isaac Beckett appears in volume 1, p. 20. LC call number: NE265.S6. Further biographical details about Beckett, especially relating to John Smith, appear in two articles by Antony Griffiths, "Early Mezzotint Publishing in England - I: John Smith 1652-1743" and "Early Mezzotint Publishing in England - II: Peter Lely, Tompson and Browne." Both were published in Print Quarterly 6(September 1989): 242-257, and 7(June 1990): 130-145. LC call number: NE1.P757. A mezzotint portrait of Isaac Beckett by John Smith is reproduced in the second article by Griffiths, page 143. [back to article]
- The best sources for biography on John Smith are two articles by Antony Griffiths, "Early Mezzotint Publishing in England - I: John Smith 1652-1743" and "Early Mezzotint Publishing in England - II: Peter Lely, Tompson and Browne." Both were published in Print Quarterly 6(September 1989): 242-257, and 7(June 1990): 130-145. LC call number: NE1.P757. The first article includes a reproduction of a portrait of John Smith by Sir Godfrey Kneller on p. 242. Another excellent source on John Smith is his online biography in the National Portrait Gallery Web site. For mezzotint portraits engraved or published by John Smith, see the National Portrait Gallery, London, catalogue entries available online. [back to article]
- Images of some of these portraits are available online in the National Portrait Gallery (search under Hayls). Little biographical information on Hayls is available. He is mentioned in Pepys Diary as "Mr. Hales" or "Hales" in February 1666. For the specific entries on Hayls, which refer to the above portraits, see the online annotations to The Diary of Samuel Pepys. [back to article]