Wednesday 21 September 2016

John Beard: Handel's Tenor, the exhibition

Thomas Hudson - John Beard as Macheath, 1743
Thomas Hudson - John Beard as Macheath, 1743
John Beard: Handel's Tenor; Handel and Hendrix in London
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 20 2016
The lively life & career of the 18th century tenor John Beard, told via a sequence of telling objects

Last year Handel & Hendrix in London (formerly known as the Handel House Museum) had an exhibition based around Ellen Harris's book George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends (see my article), adding telling objects to the narrative of the book. Now a new exhibition at the museum John Beard: Handel's Tenor seeks to do the same with Neil Jenkins' biography of Beard (see my review of the book). The exhibition runs until 19 February 2017.

Beard had a very full, not to say colourful life, starting out as one of the children of the Chapel Royal, he moved on to singing for Handel, and performing at Covent Garden. His first marriage was to a member of the aristocracy, Lady Henrietta Waldegrave, which left them surrounded by the antagonism of her family. Beard's second marriage, to Charlotte Rich, made him son-in-law to John Rich the proprietor of Covent Garden and this Beard eventually took over from his father-in-law. Running as a thread through this are Beard's performances for Handel, including having the title roles in Samson and Jephtha written for him.

So not surprisingly, musical scores pay a large role in the exhibition and some are telling objects indeed. We see the score for Handel's Esther alongside Charles Burney's description of a performance of Esther at Westminster Abbey which included Beard, Beard's own tenor part from The Foundling Hospital Anthem of 1749, and a score of Messiah from 1759 with Beard's name next to the tenor part. This latter was used at a performance just before Handel's death. Other musical scores reflect Beard's wider career, he was well known for singing songs during plays at Covent Garden and Drury Lane so there was A Favourite song sung by Mr Beard at Ranelagh from a collection published in 1762, the popular song The Early Horn which became closely associated with Beard, and the score of Arne's Thomas and Sally which Beard produced at Covent Garden in the 1760's.

Other fascinating manuscripts include the recently discovered record of Beard's marriage to Lady Henrietta Waldegrave, performed by a defrocked priest in the Fleet Prison, and the record by the Lord Chamberlain (the Duke of Grafton) of Beard's dismissal from the Chapel Royal because, at the age of 19, his 'voice is changed'. He was given an allowance of £20 when he left, but ten days later he was singing in Il pastor fido for Handel.

The actors of the day were popular and captured in Bow Factory porcelain, there was figurines of two of Beard's colleagues, Kitty Clive and Henry Woodward, but unfortunately the museum seems to have been unable to secure the figure of Beard and we only saw a photograph of the figurine, Beard sitting in character playing the saltbox.

This use of a photograph reflected something of a weakness in the exhibition as many of the visual images were given in reproduction rather than seeing the objects themselves. There were some interesting prints (including one of Lady Henrietta Waldegrave's grave) but far too many were simply reproductions. Which was somewhat disappointing.

Separate from the exhibition, Handel's Music Room, we were able to see Thomas Hudson's fine picture of John Beard in his red coat in character as Macheath in John Gay's The Beggars Opera, plus a painting of Beard's father-in-law John Rich which was recently been tentatively identified as by Hogarth.

Slightly incongruously but very telling, in the second room there was a large black wooden throne. This had been lent by the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks and is used by the president, and as such it would have been used by John Beard when he was president of the society.

The exhibition gave a fine sense of narrative of Beard's life, all with the background of recordings of repertoire associated with him. It was a shame that a greater number of original pictures and prints could not have been secured, but seeing Beard's personal scores really brought the connection to life,

Elsewhere on this blog:

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