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Karl Friedrich Abel

2 of 5 portraits of Karl Friedrich Abel

Karl Friedrich Abel, by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1765 -NPG 5947 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Karl Friedrich Abel

by Thomas Gainsborough
circa 1765
49 7/8 in. x 39 7/8 in. (1267 mm x 1013 mm) overall
NPG 5947

This portraitback to top

Abel and Gainsborough were close friends, sharing a love of life and a passion for the viola da gamba. Gainsborough became a skillful performer on the instrument and his careful portrayal of the overhand grip of the bow in both NPG 5947 and NPG 5081 reflect his understanding. In return for his tuition Abel received from Gainsborough some paintings and many drawings, Henry Angelo recalling that the walls of his apartment ‘were covered with them, slightly pinned to the paper-hangings’. [1] Gainsborough was painting a self portrait for him (see Gainsborough NPG 1107) when Abel died. Gainsborough then wrote that he would ‘never cease looking up to heaven - the little while I have to stay behind - in hopes of getting one more glance of the man I loved from the moment I heard him touch the string'. [2] On the background wall of NPG 5947 Gainsborough had first included a drawing of the Three Graces, an appropriate (but for him uncharacteristic) emblem of amicitia. [3]
Between 1885 and 1988 the appearance of NPG 5947 was known, if at all, only through a photograph, while Gainsborough’s whole length of Abel, which he exhibited in 1777, was acquired by the Huntington in 1925 and became relatively familiar. In 1958 Waterhouse observed, from a photograph, that the features in NPG 5947 did not altogether agree with the Huntington portrait, and in 1970 Hayes commented that it was not certainly a portrait of Abel. Then in 1975 the related drawing by Gainsborough, NPG 5081, was rediscovered and in 1988, when NPG 5947 also reappeared, it became apparent that it predated the Huntington whole length by some twelve years and that the likeness was not inconsistent. A date of c.1765, proposed by Hayes in 1998, [4] is indicated by costume and the sitter’s apparent age (and perhaps by the appearance of the Three Graces, a motif used by Reynolds in 1765, see note 3 below).

Footnotesback to top

1) H. Angelo, Reminiscences, 1904, I, p 146. See also W. T. Whitley. Thomas Gainsborough, 1915, p 362, and J. Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 1970, I, p 94: Abel once gave Gainsborough a viola da gamba ‘in return for two valuable landscapes, and several beautiful drawings’ (Morning Herald, 25 August 1788) and there were 32 Gainsborough drawings in Abel’s sale, Christie’s, 13 December 1787 (when Gainsborough bought another viola da gamba).
2) To Henry Bate, 20 June 1787 (J. Hayes ed., Gainsborough Letters, 2001, p 164).
3) Precisely the design used by Reynolds in 1765 for Lady Bunbury sacrificing (D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, I, 2000, no.279).
4) Gainsborough, Ferrara, 1998 (9).

Referenceback to top

Hayes 1970
J. Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols., 1970, under no.27.

Roberts 1916
W. Roberts, Gainsborough’s Portrait of Abel, 1916.1

Stainton 1978
L. Stainton, Gainsborough and his Musical Friends, Kenwood, 1978, under no.17.

Waterhouse 1953
E. K. Waterhouse, 'Preliminary Check List of Portraits by Thomas Gainsborough', Wal. Soc., XXXIII, 1953, p 1.

Waterhouse 1958
E. K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, no.3.


1 Privately printed, 7pp., presumably when the portrait was on the market after the Cummings sale.

Physical descriptionback to top

Pale-brown eyes, powdered wig; wearing a gold, green and maroon flowered waistcoat and a deep red coat; a six-string viola da gamba between his knees.

Provenanceback to top

[possibly J. V. Durrant sale, Christie's 28 April 1838, lot 263 'Abel playing the Viol da Gamba', bought Bond; Robert Bond sale, Christie's, 16 February 1839, lot 73, bought Knapp] Dr Hoskins FRS, 1856;1 H. F. Long 1864;2 [H. M. Bray 1866];3 Puttick & Simpson, 7 June 1866, but not sold;4 [B. Barnett, London, 1876];5 Dr W. H. Cummings;6 his sale, Christie’s, 17 December 1915, lot 145, bought Sulley; with Tooth 1919; Carl P. Dannett, New York, by 1923, by descent; Leger, from whom purchased 1987 with the aid of the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

1 G. W. Fulcher, Life of Thomas Gainsborough, 1856, p 216.
2 Letter from Long to Scharf, 12 February 1864 (NPG archive), who sketched the portrait at Farrer’s 12 February 1864 (Sir George Scharf's Trustees' Sketch Books, 8/45).
3 He offered a ‘kit cat sized’ portrait of Abel by Romney to the NPG (letter of 2 March 1866; NPG archive).
4 According to W. Roberts, Gainsborough’s Portrait of Abel, 1916, p 6; the sale is not identified in Lugt.
5 In June 1876 Barnett offered to the NPG a ‘half-length’ portrait by Gainsborough of Abel playing the double bass (letters of 26 & 28 June 1876; NPG archive).
6 Label verso: W. H. Cummings Esq,/Brackley Villa,/Thurlow Park Road,/Dulwich. E. K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, no.3, stated Cummings bought the picture c.1870; Cummings (1831-1915) was principal of the Guildhall School of Music.

Exhibitionsback to top

Gainsborough, Grosvenor Gallery, 1885 (46) lent Cummings; Gainsborough's Circle at Bath, Bath, 1988 (18); Gainsborough, Ferrara, 1998 (9).


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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