The Earliest Lowland Bellows Pipe Picture


Pete Stewart introduces a bellows-piper from the 17th century




This picture came up for sale in 2006 at a Paris saleroom [it was unsold; I have no idea where it currently is]. The sale catalogue describes it as painted by Egbert Heemskerk the Elder, whose dates are said to be 1610 to 1680. It shows a tavern scene with drinkers and a central figure playing a bellows-blown bagpipe with one long horizontal drone and at least one shorter drone over the right arm, and a chanter which could well match what we now call a Lowland chanter. The bellows can be seen, but it is not certain that they are of the rounded design common to the British bagpipes.
There are several painters of the name Heemskerk, all from Holland; the most renowned is the Egbert Hemskeerk the Elder who died in England in 1704. Horace Walpole described him:as
"Of Harlem, a buffoon painter, was scholar of De Grabber, but lived in England, where he painted what were called pieces of humour; that is, drunken scenes, Quakers' meetings, wakes, &c. He was patronized by Lord Rochester, and died in London, 1704, leaving a son of his profession."
There is another depiction of a similar piper by a Heemskerk though as far as I know the original does not survive, only an engraving. This shows, amongst the peasants, a figure more elegantly though carelessly dressed; it is possible that this is meant to be the notorious Lord Rochester, who may have been Heemskerk's patron, and who would have greatly enjoyed the joke of being painted in such company.
The paintings of pipers by Heemskerck were referred to, though not discussed, by Ernst Schmidt, who assigned them to two later painters of the same name, the one who came to England in 1674 and his son, who continued to paint in a similar genre up to 1744. Schmidt assumes that the painting was done in England, some time after 1674. In situations such as this, where dating a picture is of the essence, one naturally turns to the art experts. In this instance, however, the situation is only made more confusing; opinion, as is so often the case with experts, is divided. The date of this painting cannot be reliably established; according to some authorities, the earlier Heemskerck to whom it is attributed did not exist. Another painting of a piper, this time decidedly Dutch, was attributed to this ‘elder’ Heemskerck at Southerby’s in 2007, so the matter is still in dispute.
Styles of clothing can often be used to date paintings (although clothing is often dated from appearances in paintings), but in this genre this is not so helpful; peasant clothing may very considerably, as it does here, and if the paintings are done for satirical purposes this confuses the issue even further. However, various aspects of the clothing in these two images imply a date between 1650 and 1690. We are thus no nearer being certain whether this is a Dutch tavern or an English one. The Heemskercks are credited with at least two other paintings which show pipers, and both these play pipes of the more familiar ‘Dutch’ model, (shown often in Teniers’ peasant scenes). The implication seems to be that bellows-pipe paintings were not done in Holland and thus were painted by the Heemskerck who moved to England in 1674 and represent a piper playing in England, possibly sometime around 1680. Whether this implies an English piper however, or an ‘English’ bagpipe, remains unclear. He does however, appear to be singing to his piping ...