The most important museum item for my book was not a violin or a bow, but a painting, the 1831 Portrait of Niccolò Paganini signed by Daniel Maclise. Paganini did not pose for this portrait; the sketches were made by Maclise based on Paganini’s public appearances. It seems unlikely to me that this involved seeing Paganini in public performance: the better seats to an 1831 London Paganini performance cost two and a half ounces of gold coins. Fortunately, Paganini also attended house parties where he met the important musicians and artists of his day, and I presume that Maclise attended one of these parties, sat in a corner and made sketches.
Before I say anything else about this painting, I want to note that belongs to the Dover Museum & Bronze Age Boat Gallery and is on long term loan to the Royal Academy of Music. The curatorial staff of each institutions was very kind in answering my questions and allowing me to examine and use digital images of the object. The painting itself was created by an assistant rather than Maclise, who already was a fairly famous painter and who would later, among other things, make celebrated illustrations of books by Charles Dickens.
In my book, I did not discuss the origins of this painting, but writing for the internet I feel perfectly empowered to make highly speculative statements that are unsupported by the historical record. The painting was not commissioned or offered to Paganini. In 1831, the person mostly likely to want the painting was Arthur Betts, the proprietor of the Betts Violin Shop in London. This was the shop that made composite monsters out of pieces of old Italian violins. In 1831, their best-selling product was a new violin that pretended to be a copy of Paganini’s violin, il Cannone. The Maclise painting shows this violin. When the Betts closed down in 1867, the painting fell into the hands of private collectors. Finally, it came to rest in the collection of Jane Ann Gordon.
By the 1890’s the location of recitals in London became the homes of wealthy society women. One of them was Gordon, Lady Cory, the wife of Clifford Cory, a Welsh coal baron and a Liberal Party politician. Their London home was on Belgrave Square. Her concerts included artists such as Ingacy Jan Paderewski and Fritz Kreisler. Guests to her home could admire the Maclise portrait of Paganini, see her own renown textile art works, and gaze upon her fabulous collection of diamond jewelry. Alas, this probably did not include the Paganini diamonds, which had relocated to New York City with Charlotte Watson in 1834.
I have stated in my book that male behavior at Victorian house concerts was sometimes policed by Joseph Bell, the great syphilis diagnostician and the model for Sherlock Holmes. A story about Lady Cory will illustrate how necessary this police action was. The misbehaving man in Lady Cory’s life was Vladimir von Pachmann, a Russian pianist.
Lady Cory was an attractive, cultured woman who really did have her foot on the ladder of nobility—her husband served in the House of Lords and was a Peer. Von Pachmann, like Ludwig Beethoven, added the noble signifier “von” to his name without consulting anyone except his own ego. Pachman’s father had known Beethoven, a connection that did Vladimir very little good; his concert repertoire was limited to Chopin. From 1890-1908 he toured America. He made money, not by playing the piano, but by promoting them; he was on the payroll of Chickering.
Today, classical music performers are fairly reserved. Wearing their concert clothes, they approach their instruments with reverence and perform without saying anything. In the early nineteenth century, it was completely acceptable to perform music as part of an theatrical act. For example, there was a violinist at the time of Paganini, Alexandre Boucher Girodet, whose entire performance was based on his resemblance to Napoleon Bonaparte. Striking a pose with his hand in his coat, à la Napoleon, Girodet gave his audience the sensation that the violin was being played by a great general.
Von Pachman gave audiences the impression that the piano was being played by a clown. He muttered constantly as he played and made grand gestures in between allowing his clumsy fingers to fly over the keyboards of his mass-market pianos. George Bernard Shaw felt that the pantomime was the point of Pachman’s performances, that Chopin’s was just an embellishment. Other critics were not so kind, and placed Pachman into a different species of primate, the “Chopinzee.”
But in Lady Cory’s heyday, it was not considered polite to question the humanness of the male gender. However, for Russian men especially, to question the humanity of the female gender was standard operating procedure. In an ideal world, cultured women like Lady Cory would never have to have contact with boors like Pachman. Nevertheless, Vladimir von Pachman was invited to the house on Belgrave Square. Perhaps the coal mining husband wanted see a Chopinzee up close.
Lady Cory was tough as nails: she collected artwork by French prisoners of war and made sure these made it into museums after the war ended in 1918. Her life was devoted to moving art out of private collections and into public ones. Von Pachman was a porcelain tea cup in comparison. Entering Lady Cory’s home, he was perhaps intimidated by the Maclise portrait of Paganini. He was not the only performer and we can only guess what talented musicians he heard as he waited to play with his sweaty hands. Von Pachman would have been comfortable playing a Honky-Tonk Chickering piano. How he felt about the exquisitely maintained concert piano in Lady Cory’s salon was not recorded.
When it was time for Pachman to play, he became mentally disorganized. He sat down at the piano. Then, getting up again without having played anything, he started his monologue with the observation that Jane Anne Gordon, Lady Cory, was the ugliest woman he had ever seen.
There was a fruitless attempt to get Pachman to shut up and play the piano. He refused. Incredibly, it seems that Pachman was not escorted out, and the anecdote was repeated as though it said something nasty about Lady Cory rather than revealing something nasty about Pachman.
After Lady Cory died in 1949, her jewelry and her textile art made its way into the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Maclise Portrait came under the care of the wonderful curators of the Dover Museum & Bronze Age Boat Gallery and the Royal Academy of Music. This painting is not the most famous portrait of Paganini. But on the portrait, there is one tiny detail that is of great interest to violin bow historians. This detail will be the subject of my next post.
10/5/2021 06:22:15 am
Is this the beginning chapter of a new book???
10/5/2021 03:54:25 pm
Yes it is! The Curse of Paganini. Every blog post is a half chapter. The four parts of this book will be 1) Cursed Objects 2) Secret Societies 3) Lives as Dark as Death 4) The Force of Destiny
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