Alice Little is in the third year of her DPhil in Music at Oxford University, for which her focus is the tunebooks of John Malchair, and the collection of ‘national music’ in England in the late eighteenth century. Previous research has included the music collections of Victorian antiquary Percy Manning. Her work has been published in the Journal of Museum Ethnography, Folk Music Journal, the Handbook for Studies in 18th-Century English Music, and elsewhere. See alicelittle.co.uk for more information and to get in touch.

John Malchair (1730-1812) was a drawing master and violinist, based in Oxford from 1760 until his death. My DPhil research has focused on Malchair’s collection of ‘national music’, compiled during ‘The leasure howers of many years’; however, this was not what brought Malchair to Oxford, nor how he paid his bills.

Malchair was a violinist, leading the band at the Oxford Music Room until 1792 when his violin was broken by an orange thrown from the audience. It was this job that brought him to Oxford in 1760, and which enabled his marriage to Elizabeth Jenner, which took place the same year. While it is likely that Malchair, as leader of the band, taught the violin, I have only discovered one reference to Malchair as a violin teacher: a note in a pocketbook of the registrar John Gutch, who noted that he had Agreed with Mr. Malchair for instruction on the violin, a guinea entrance, and a guinea for twelve lectures.’

Malchair was much better known around Oxford as an artist and drawing master, and was particularly skilled at landscapes. Malchair habitually carried a sketchbook, although was sometimes forced to recreate a scene from recollection, as he recorded in a letter of 1793 after returning from a walk near Cumnor: ‘at my return the sun being nearly setting… the waters of Brokins Wier appeared to be on fire, the Burford horizon was… Violet, Purple, and Azure…. I was so struck with all, that I retained somewhat of the effect which I committed to paper at home from recollection with some success.’

Landscape drawing of Oxford (not of Malchair though certainly a similar scene), Credit: Wellcome Collection, Free to use with attribution

Acting as official drawing master to the university, Malchair taught a number of undergraduates as well as family members of professors, and others. Many of Malchair’s pupils’ names are recorded on the back of his works as companions on sketching expeditions. For example, one drawing is inscribed, ‘From the River in Port Meddow near Oxford July 10 1771 House Boat expedition P. Rashleigh T. Frankland Rd. Mead.’

In 1791 Malchair completed a treatise, ‘Observations On Landskipp [Landscape] Drawing’, in which he set down (in his typically eccentric spelling) some ‘Rules and Examples for the drawing of Landskipp according to the practice at Oxford’. This volume, now held at the Ashmolean Museum, includes sections on outline, materials, paper, Indian rubber, shading, and form, and is illustrated with many sketches as examples.

The lessons Malchair gives in this volume demonstrate his experience and knowledge, explaining, for example, that ‘Chalk is sharpened by cutting from the point backward, which prevents it from breaking’; as well as occasionally tending towards the poetic, as when he noted that if shading becomes smudged it can be rescued by a sharpened pencil, for ‘to that belongs the quickening and life giving power, all is made briliant by it and to spring from the paper, the point is the spirit of all.’ Malchair also included some simple practical instructions, such as ‘It is not the practice of the Oxford school to putt anny drawing tooles in the mouth.’

While ostensibly a guide for those learning to draw, Malchair also included many details for drawing masters about how to teach these skills. These tips indicate that as well as undergraduates Malchair taught young children and if his treatise reflects his own teaching style, it would appear that he had a great deal of affection, patience and respect for young learners. For example, he wrote that ‘it is certain that the young have better judgement than is generaly allowed. thire opinions are in a greate Measur thire ohn, often just and uninfluenced, sometimes so strong and natural as much to surprise thire Elders, nay even to shame them.’

However, at the same time, Malchair acknowledged the impatience often demonstrated by young people, noting that ‘Indian Rubber or Elastic Gumme is certainely usefull at times to those who less want it, but young practitioners place rather too much confidence in it, which makes them careless.’

The drawing lesson possibly by Domenico Guidobono (1668-1746) or Bartolomeo Guidobono (1654–1709), Wikimedia Commons

One of the most telling remarks in this vein is Malchair’s recommendation that ‘One who would teach a Child, must draw like a child to conceal his skill as much as possible, his stile must gradualy improve as the pupil advances; he must even seeme to learne the arte – rather than to teach it.’ He goes on to say that a teacher ‘must at times confess that the task is rather difficult, for nothing is so humiliating to a learner as the Masters telling him that the verry thing which he cannot do is extreamely easy’. Such teachings are as true in the modern day and in other disciplines as they were for Malchair.

Losing his eyesight in his late 60s, Malchair officially handed over his drawing practice to William Delamotte in 1797.

Featured Image:  The Holywell Music Room in Oxford. Photograph taken Beth Naught, 2015.

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