I first encountered the work of John Malchair in 1998, at an exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford. Being as I am from Oxford, I was immediately struck by the beauty of his drawings which revealed through their own delicate rendering, the fragility of vanished places in and around the city.
According to Colin Harrison in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, John Malchair was ‘the most important and influential drawing master in eighteenth century Oxford’. He was a German violinist who for over thirty years supplemented his earnings as leader of the band at the Holywell Music Room.
The following abridged text is taken from the catalogue; Malchair the Artist by Colin Harrison.
“He was baptised on 15th January 1730, in St. Peter’s Church, Cologne, the eldest son of a watchmaker, Joannes Malchair and Elizabetha Rogeri. They lived together in Sternen Grasse in a house next door to that where the Rubens family spent a difficult period between 1578 and 1587. After leaving his native city, he moved to Nancy and in 1754 arrived in England. Apart from short tours of Wales in his retirement, he never left his country of adoption.
After making his first appearance at the Three Choirs Festival in September 1759, where he was to play annually until 1776, Malchair came to Oxford to compete for the position of leader of the band at the Music Room after the death of Thomas Jackson. He won the competition and made his first appearance at the Widow Jackson’s benefit on 29th November or the choral concert on 12th December.
When Malchair arrived at Oxford, the city was essentially contained within the mediaeval city walls. As the first guidebook to the city – ‘A Gentleman of Oxford, The New Oxford Guide’ published in 1759 describes:
‘The town rises on a broad eminence which arises so gradually as to be hardly perceptible, in the midst of a beautiful extent of meadows, to the south, east and west and cornfields to the north. The vales on the east are watered by the river Cherwell and those on the west and south by the main stream and several branches of the Isis. Both rivers meet towards the north-east. The landscape is bounded on every side, the north excepted by a range of hills covered with woods….’
Walking was a popular pastime in such pleasant surroundings, in the streets, college gardens and father afield to nearby villages, such as Headington in the east, with its magnificent views from Shotover Hill.
Malchair quickly settled into the rhythm of rehearsals and concerts required at the Music Room and took his first pupils for drawing soon after he arrived. In 1760 he married Elizabeth Jenner who died ‘after a lingering illness’ on 14th August 1773. Malchair was deeply affected, and in later years frequently thought of their happy years together.
He died in 1812 and was buried in St. Michael’s church on 19th December 1812.”
In ‘Malchair the Musician’ also in the catalogue, Susan Wollenberg describes how Malchair “developed the idea of collecting tunes ‘on location'”.
“Interspersed with the many items from Playford and other published sources were his own discoveries. Numerous annotations to melodies in the collections… show Malchair’s eagerness in this regard. Beyond the academic and the musical aspects of his work are the pure ‘collector’s instinct’ and delight in acquisition. As Malchair remarked in his vivid English, ‘the leasure howers of many years were employed in forming this collection, ney, necessary busness was at time incrotched uppon when the fitt of collecting Grew Violent.”
Crotch (William Crotch, who, as a ‘Child in a Frock on his Mother’s Knee, performed the organ in the Music Room, to the great astonishment of a large audience’, on 3rd July 1779 – aged three) describes how No.156 of his Specimens was ‘written down by Mr. Malchair, who heard it sung in Harlech Castle’. Malchair himself notes that his version of ‘The Grand Duke of Tuscany’s March’ is ‘as played by a Savoyard on a barrill Organ in the Streets at Oxford. November 30 1784’.
The streets of Oxford were evidently a fertile source. Among the items gathered in the Cecil Sharpe House volume they yielded, besides the March already mentioned, such gems as La Rochelle, ‘played by a Piedmontese Girl on a Cymbal in Oxford Streets December 22 1784’ (and recorded together with Malchair’s instructions for reproducing the effect on the violin); an untitled tune resembling ‘Early One Morning’ transcribed ‘from the Singing of a Poor Woman and two femal [sic] Children Oxford May 18 1784’; a topical item, ‘The Budget for 1785. Sung in the Streete July 21 – 1785 – Oxon A Political Balad on Mr Pit’s Taxes,’ a tune for flute a bec [recorder] and Tambour’ which Malchair heard ‘play’d in the Streets at Oxford Ash Wednesday Feb: 25 1789’; and, most evocatively, the lively ‘Magpie Lane’ tune: ‘I heard a Man whistle this tune in Magpey Lane Oxon Dbr 22 1789. came home and noted it down directly.”