Ballad Operas in Art

Ballad operas furnished some of 'the most frequently illustrated roles in eighteenth-century English theatre' (Judith Milhous), such as Polly in The Beggar's Opera, Hob in Flora and Nell in The Devil to Pay.

Ballad operas stimulated the trade in art, and artists stimulated the market for ballad opera. Singers’ portraits became sought after, printed and sold by booksellers and displayed and sold at print shops and coffee houses. Ballad opera scenes were the subject of paintings, engravings and frontispieces in editions.

Fig 1: M. Adds. 108 e. 105 (18). Frontispiece. Essex Hawker, The Wedding: a Tragi-comi-pastoral-farcical Opera. To which is prefix'd, the Overture, by Dr. Pepusch. With an addition of the Musick to each Song (London: printed for W. Mears, 1734). © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Fig 2: The Humours of Hob at the Country Wake in the Opera of Flora / Friendly as a Ballad Singer at the Country Wake. Engraving After John Laguerre, by Claude Dubosc, 1725-1750. © Trustees of the British Museum.

We have yet to fully grasp the contributions of artists to ballad opera, and to the commercialization of eighteenth-century London song that ballad opera brought about. For the next stage of this project we plan to catalogue and reproduce the representations printed in ballad opera editions, and to link them to related artworks.