Eighteenth-Century Scottish Painter
John Brown. Letters upon the Poetry and Music of the
Italian Opera; Addressed to a Friend. By the late
Mr. John Brown, Painter. Edinburgh: Printed for Bell and Bradfute;
and C. Elliot and T. Kay...London, 1789. First edition. Small
octavo in fours (6.25 x 3.875 inches; 158 x 98 mm.). [2, title
(verso blank)], [2, errata (verso blank)], [iii]-xx, 141, [1,
blank] pages. Diagram on page 127.
John Brown's Letters to
Lord Monboddo on the Italian Opera
Contemporary tree calf. Smooth spine, divided into compartments by decorative gilt bands, with a burgundy leather label decoratively ruled and lettered in gilt; board edges decoratively tooled in blind; edges stained yellow. Green silk ribbon bookmark (causing browning to pages 18 and 19, as well as to pages 36 and 37, where it once rested). The binding is a little rubbed, with a few small areas of surface loss at head of spine and top edge of front board, and a small piece chipped away from foot of spine; corners lightly bumped; boards exposed on upper corner of rear cover; joints cracked, but strengthened and holding firm. Endpapers and first and last leaves (including title-page) browned at the edges from turn-in glue; small faint stain to fore-edge. Top edge of title very slightly frayed; tiny tear to upper edge of c1 (pages xix/xx). Leaf S3 (pages 141/) with a diagonal crease from the top edge to the gutter, just affecting the page number, and small portion of lower corner torn away (paper flaw). Despite these flaws, this is a very good copy, clean and well cared-for. Early ink signature at head of title: "S. Murray / Meigla 1818 [underlined]." From the library of John Carroll Collins, with his booklabel on front pastedown.
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ESTC T144076. Gregory & Bartlett, Catalogue of Early Books on Music, page 44.
"This little piece is the composition of one of the greatest artists that ever was in Scotland; who, besides his superior excellence in his profession, which was Drawing, the principal part of Painting, was very learned in all the Italian Arts; and particularly in their Poetry and Music, the subject of this little work, more learned, I believe, than any man in Great Britain. He has explained most accurately every thing belonging to the Italian Opera, beginning with the Recitative, by which the business or action of the Opera, the principal thing in all dramatic performances, is carried on; and then proceeding to the Airs or Songs, by which the sentiments and passions of the Dramatis Personae are expressed. These Airs he has divided and explained so accurately as to show very clearly 'that there is no affection of the 'human breast,' (to use his own words, and I cannot use better), 'from the slightest and most gentle stirring of sentiment, to the most frantic degree of passion, which some one of these classes' (of Airs) 'is not aptly suited to express'" (James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, on pages [iii]-vi of the "Advertisement").
Scottish painter and draughtsman John Brown (1749 or 1752-1787), son of a goldsmith and watchmaker, studied at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh. By 1769 he was in London, where he ordered a camera obscura, an instrument which he regarded as "useful and even necessary to a landscape painter," and on 15 October 1769 was ready to set sail for Italy in the company of David Erskine. Brown was fortunate in not only having connections to Roman society through Erskine, but also to its artistic circle through friendship with fellow Scottish painter Alexander Runciman, who was part of the circle of artists around Henry Fuseli. By spring 1772, Brown was travelling as draughtsman to the antiquary and collector Charles Townley and his companion William Young. During their extensive tour of the lesser-known parts of southern Italy, Sicily, and Malta, Brown drew antiquities, landscapes, and archaeological ruins. It was during this tour that Brown contracted malaria. On his return to Rome in 1773, Brown became involved with Fuseli and his circle, and working in pencil, and pen and ink, made numerous studies of Roman life, as well as portraits. He also drew the antiquities and landscape of Rome, and continued to work for Townley, producing drawings of antique sculpture. Brown was in Florence by 31 August 1776, where he seems to have remained for the rest of his time in Italy, continuing to work for Townley and visiting Venice in 1779. By March 1780, Brown was in London, and thereafter returned to Scotland. His most important commission there was for a group of thirty-one small-scale portrait drawings of the members of the Society of Antiquaries, between 1780 and 1781. In 1784 he was in Edinburgh, where he sat for an animated double portrait with and by Runciman. In that same year he travelled to London again, however, the malaria he contracted in Italy forced him to return home. After making the voyage by sea, he died at Leith on 5 September 1787. In 1789, his nine Letters upon the Poetry and Music of the Italian Opera were published by their recipient, James Burnett, Lord Monboddo. See Oxford Art Online and Deborah Graham-Vernon in Oxford DNB Online.
In his "Account of the Author," which appeared in Latin in the first edition, and was translated into English in the 1791 second edition, Lord Monboddo writes (on pages xiii-xvii): "Mr. Brown was not only known as an exquisite draftsman, he was also a good philosopher, a sound scholar, and endowed with a just and refined taste in all the liberal and polite Arts, and a man of consummate worth and integrity. Soon after his death these Letters on the Poetry and Music of the Italian Opera, were first published for the benefit of his widow. They were originally written to his friend Lord Monboddo, who wished to have Mr. Brown's opinion on those subjects, which have so intimate a connection with his work on the Origin and Progress of Language; and who was so pleased with the style and observations contained in them, that he wrote an Introduction to them. The Letters are written with great elegance and perspicuity; they are most certainly the production of a strong and fervid mind, acquainted with the subject; and must be of infinite utility to most of the frequenters of the Italian Opera, by enabling them to understand the reasons on which the pleasure they receive at that musical performance is founded. They were most assuredly not written for publication: they have, therefore, that spirit and simplicity which every man of genius diffuses through any subject of which he treats, and which he is but too apt to refine away, when he seriously sits down to compose a work for the Public."
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