This small, highly finished ink drawing depicts a scene from the popular ballad opera Flora. Hubert François Bourguignon, known as Gravelot exerted enormous influence in London during the 1730s and 1740s. A prolific and elegant draughtsman and designer, Gravelot was employed on a number of important book projects and as a friend of Hogarth’s he was an important member of the second St Martin’s Lane Academy. Gravelot’s influence can be found in the works of his friend Francis Hayman and his pupils including Thomas Gainsborough and the engravers Thomas Major and Charles Grignon. Perhaps most significantly Gravelot had a significant impact on Hogarth, as Paulson has identified, introducing him to elements of French rococo design.
This drawing was engraved by George Bickham in 1737 as part of a book of the songs from the opera Flora. Flora was presented at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1730 by John Rich, the producer of The Beggar’s Opera, and was a comic ballad opera of the type that Rich had made so successful. It was adapted from Thomas Doggett’s Country Wake by John Hippisley, a comedian who had played Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera. A sequel, Flora, or Hob’s Wedding appeared in 1732. The title on the book of songs reads: Songs in the Opera Flora With the Humorous Scenes of Hob Design’d by ye Celebrated Mr. Gravelot & Engrav’d by G. Bickham Junr. It is dedicated to John Rich: ‘The presumption of laying this small Treatise before you is a crime I am too conscious of, especially as it has been so long in Print. But as the Town hath given it so frequent & favourable a reception I thought I might venture to add ye small improvements I am capable of by Engraving the Musick Songs & proper Designs to each Subject in the manner it now appears.’ The present sheet depicts the central protagonist Friendly ‘a Gentleman in Love with Flora’ disguised as a ballad singer performing outside the walls of Flora’s uncle and guardian, Sir Thomas Testy’s house. A preparatory drawing by Gravelot is preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the present drawing, which is the same size as the New York sheet, seems to be the finished study Gravelot prepared for Bickham; it shows evidence of incised lines, suggesting it was used directly by Bickham to prepare the engraving.