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Is This a Drone I See Before Me? On bagpipe iconography

Abraham Bloemaert’s (1566-1651) The Bagpipe Player (Fig. 1) (now in the Residenzgalerie, Salzburg) was painted in Utrecht somewhere between 1625 and 1630 (Roethlisberger, 1993: 267). As one of the most arresting images of a piper and his pipes, it is not surprising that it has been subjected to a good deal of attention in the bagpipe literature. Askew (1931) and Cheape (1994), for example, have particularly emphasised its influence on later representations of bagpipes, an influence which can be felt over more than a couple of centuries; this is a subject to which I intend to return in a later paper. The purpose of the current piece, however, is mainly to revisit the organological claims made by James Merryweather in his 2004 Chanter article “Missing Parts”. The intention is to argue that, although Merryweather’s specific interpretation of the pipes is almost certainly mistaken, his oft- and well-made general argument that we should be highly cautious of

interpreting even seemingly

accurate depictions of bagpipes

as organologically sound is

even more strongly supported

by the Bloemaert than has

previously been realised. Here I

also follow Merryweather in

arguing that works of art

should be interpreted from the

perspective of the artist whose

central concerns are usually

other than providing accurate

drawings for those interested in

the history of musical

instruments. In developing

these claims Bloemaert’s

painting will be considered in

the wider context of other

representations of bagpipes

produced in Utrecht during this

“Golden Age” of Dutch art1.

Merryweather’s specific concern with The Bagpipe

Player lies with the rather odd smaller drone which does not match the larger one. He offers the intriguing suggestion that it is a bass drone missing its bell-ended final section and notes that he himself played his set of Swayne’s just this way during repairs to the drone. Closer inspection, however, shows that this interpretation is most unlikely. This becomes especially clear in the beautifully engraved version of the painting produced by Bloemaert’s son Cornelis (1603-1692) where the drones are not hidden in the Caravaggioesque shadow of the original (Fig. 2)2. As can be seen, there is no evidence of the smooth shaping or lapped end of a normal tuning pin as we would expect if the drone end-joint had been removed (see Fig. 15). Indeed, the high degree of complex decorative turning (as well as some metal inlay towards the bottom) and its termination in an acorn-shaped button can only indicate that its whole length is meant to be seen. Contextually anomalous as this structure seems from an organological point of view, there appears to be nothing missing from it3.

In support of his absent drone argument Merryweather also draws our attention to a painting attributed to Pieter Wtewael4 (1596-1660) known as A Shepherd with Bagpipes (private collection) (Fig. 3). Although he does not discuss the provenance of the painting, there are interesting connections between Wtewael and Bloemaert, not least that they were contemporaries both living and working in Utrecht. It would be hard not to imagine that both were familiar with each other’s work. As such it may easily be imagined that the older and renowned Bloemaert influenced the younger artist. Perhaps this influence even extended to a strange aversion to bagpipe bells! In terms of dates this suggestion may seem to just work; as already noted, Bloemaert’s Bagpipe Player is dated 1625-30, whilst the Wtewael is thought to have been produced around 1627-285. The difficulty with the idea is that the central image of Wtewael’s Shepherd with Bagpipes is clearly a direct reworking of a similarly named painting (currently on loan to the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge Massachusetts) produced by his father, Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638) (Fig.4)6; this work is dated to 1623 and, hence, pre-dates the Bloemaert. If we were seeking the origin of bell-less pipes in Utrecht, then the source would seem to lie with Wtewael senior rather than Bloemeart. That said, it is quite clear that Joachim knew what bell-ended pipes look like as is evidenced from the piper in his Adoration of the Shepherds (1601, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) (Fig. 5).

The pipes and pipers depicted by Bloemaert and (Pieter) Wtewael are, clearly, very different: Bloemaert’s chanter appears conical, Wtewaels’s cylindrical; Bloemaert’s (two) drones rest on the shoulder, Wtewael’s

(three) sit across the body; the bags are placed

under different arms; the piper has the

blowpipe in his mouth in the Bloemaert but it

stands free in the Wtewael7; different notes are

being fingered by the two players and so on.

Notwithstanding these differences

Merryweather suggests that with Wtewael’s

pipes “there ought to be a ferrule or small bell

on the tip of the [hümmelchen-like] chanter

and terminal extensions or, again, ferrules on

the drone pipes should have covered the

lapping thread”. In other words, he detects

more missing parts. Again, we might question

this interpretation. For example, there is no

especial reason to expect the chanter to have a

flared bell; Praetorius’ well-known

illustrations in De Organographia of a

hümmelchen and dudy, for example, show

small pipe chanters from just this period

without such bells (Fig. 6). In this respect it is

also worth noting Hendrick ter Brugghen’s

(1588-1629) Man Playing the Bagpipes (Fig.

  1. in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (dated to 1624) since he not only worked in Utrecht but was a former pupil of Bloemaert’s; ter Brugghen’s cylindrical chanter shows minimal end turning. One might further question why, if ferrules are missing in the

Wtewael, the chanter/drones end in ivory rather than the same wood as the rest of the pipes. Indeed, looking at the set as a whole, one is struck by how all the various mounts – including the mouthpiece – appear as a piece. This is especially apparent in a reworking of the same subject known as A Shepherd Piper with his Mastiff before a Shed (Fig. 8) (private collection) where the change in angle provides a better view of the pipes8. Close examination of all three Wtewael versions fails to provide any evidence for the lapping thread which Merryweather detects. As with the Bloemaert, we can only conclude that there is no substantive evidence for missing parts here.

Although it has not been previously recognised in the literature, Bloemaert represented pipes in three works other than The Bagpipe Player. Since in each case there is something odd about one of the drones, it will be worth placing them on record here. The most substantial piece is The Piping Goatherd dated 1634 and owned by The Earl Spencer at Althorp House in Northamptonshire (Figs. 9 and 10)9. Although somewhat freer in expression than The Bagpipe Player, Bloemaert depicts a very similar conical chanter (although fingered more convincingly in this case) and similar fringing where the bag is tied onto the (missing) stock. But once again it is the smaller drone that fails to convince; it looks too narrow, there is no match with the decorative turning on the larger drone and its lack of a bell all make it look more like a blowpipe than a drone. Exactly the same drone features are to be found with his other two depictions of pipes. These have come down to us as engravings by Frederick Bloemaert, another of his sons, but are known to have been based on original designs by Abraham (Roethlisberger, 1993: 261-62, 272- 74) (Figs. 11 and 12). Although it is unclear how exactly to account for these incongruous drones, there is no obvious reason to think that they result from the removal of the drone end-section. This conclusion is partly confirmed in a painting by of one of Bloemaert’s former pupils, Jan van Bijlert (1597/98 -1671), who has adopted something of the Bloemaert drone house style (although the painting as a whole apes the Caravaggioesque flourishes of the ter Brugghen) (Fig. 13). Note that the smaller drone clearly flares to a slender bell-like ending; again, no missing part.10

Returning to Bloemaert’s The Bagpipe Player, the contentious drone appears to remarkably closely resemble the small drone on the muchosa, a type of bagpipe originating in the Hainaut region of Wallonian Belgium and illustrated in Boone (1983: 58-9) (Figs. 14 and 15). Although Haine and Meeùs (1985: 33) date the appearance of the muchosa to the end of the 18th century, not too dissimilar drones appear in Jan Tilius’ Bagpipe Player Making Faces (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna); the painting is dated 1685 (or possibly 1688) (Figs. 16 and 17). Interestingly, these drones also have metalwork inlay as does the Bloemaert drone11. Without wanting to necessarily claim that Bloemaert’s is a muchosa drone, it is clear that drones of this type are not a mere figment of his imagination.

The Tilius drones, of course, are all

of a piece so we are apparently no closer to

resolving the inconsistency in the Bloemaert

with the larger drone. At this point it is

worth standing back and considering the

pipes as a whole. It soon becomes apparent,

although not previously pointed out, that

they are something of a hotchpotch. The

woods of the various parts, for example, do

not match up: the wood of the chanter and

large drone is light (possibly box), whilst

that of the stocks and blowpipe is considerably darker (plum?). Although there is a degree of uncertainty, the final section(s) of the small drone may be made from yet another type of wood, appearing to be somewhat lighter than the stock but darker than the other drone; a difference which is more apparent in the engraved version (Fig. 2). There are also evident differences in the style of turning; the lines of the standing part of the larger drone, for example, are heavier and more voluptuous than those of the small drone which are not only more delicate but better complement the turning on the blowpipe. In addition, there is an impression that the standing part of the larger drone is slightly too large for the stock in which it is placed. The opposite appears to be the case with the upper part of the small drone which seems just a little too slender. In other words, the short drone is not to the only peculiarity here, the whole instrument is at odds with itself.

As an attempt to resolve these inconsistencies a rather radical proposal suggests itself, namely that what we see before us is not a single instrument but rather an amalgam of two or possibly three different sets. On this story, those parts tied into the bag, the chanter/drone stocks and blowpipe, are all of a piece and form the basis of the instrument. Into the chanter and (shorter) drone stock have been fitted parts from a completely different instrument (both in terms of wood and style). This would explain why the drone, at least, appears too large. Tentatively, we might also suggest that a drone from yet a third instrument has been fitted into the longer stock; this is why it is made from different wood and is slightly too small.

How did Bloemaert come by such a mongrel set of pipes? One fanciful possibility is that he sent an apprentice out to the local pipe maker and asked for the loan of a set of pipes for a couple of weeks whilst he fulfilled a commission to paint a bagpipe player. The pipe maker, however, did not want to risk a nice, saleable set coming back damaged and covered in paint, so he rustled together a passable set made up of the kind of damaged or experimental bits and pieces that are scattered around all makers’ workshops. The result did not bother Bloemaert; he either did not notice or did not care.

This story must be fanciful, however, because it is certain that Bloemaert did care. The reason for this is simple: the pipes constitute a major structural element of the painting and so had to work compositionally. In other words, he almost certainly had the pipes made up in the way he wanted; the result may be organologically inconsistent but from the artistic perspective they make perfect sense. The chanter, for example, is partly presented against a dark background; it, therefore, needed to be light in colour. The same light colour, however, would not have done for the drone stocks which would have been lost against the russet red of the model’s undercoat. Similarly the blowpipe had to be dark to contrast against the white shift. Note that although the lower part of the large drone is lost against the coat, because it projects across the dark background, it has to be light. It is likely that the length of this drone was also determined by compositional factors: any longer and it would have unbalanced the structure by making it top-heavy (as well as taking it beyond the frame of the painting). Similarly, a second drone matching the first’s size and weight would have crowded out the face; there had to be a drone since there was a stock, but the composition dictated that it be relatively insignificant. The pipes look (and, almost certainly, would sound) odd if we think they represent real bagpipes, but their existence is determined by artistic reality, and, as such, were probably just what Bloemaert ordered.

Similar kinds of artistic concern can be detected in the other paintings considered in this paper. For example, although the Wtewael pipes (Fig. 3) are under the wrong arm, the resultant effect is to direct the eye towards the centre of the composition in a way that would not have happened if they had properly lain across the shepherd’s chest. For ter Brugghen (Fig. 7) the problem was that half the drones are seen against the flesh tones of the model’s neck and half against the darker setting of the background. To both pick the drone ends out and give the image depth, his solution is to paint those wonderfully luminous ivory bells. Perhaps the pipes he used as his model were just like this, perhaps not but it does not matter, they work at the artistic level. With his other great bagpipe picture of 1624, Bagpipe Player in Profile, (Fig. 18) (recently acquired by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) he uses an alternative, and, to my eye, less subtle, strategy: he simply changes the colour of the wood of the bell section to an improbable black. It would be a mistake to take this work as evidence (at least, without corroboration from other sources) that multi- coloured drones were all the rage in 1624 Utrecht.

We are all familiar with fanciful, if not

downright impossible, illustrations of bagpipes (such

as Fig. 19) and no one would ever be fooled into

thinking that they represent any kind of even

approximately historically accurate record. The real

danger lies with paintings like Bloemaert’s which

seduce with their apparent air of detailed realism.

Surely, we feel, The Bagpipe Player was painted from

the life and so constitutes documentary proof of an

instrument from the period. We are so seduced that

we even try and find stories from our own experience

to account for anomalies such as apparently missing

drone parts. Yet the evidence presented here suggests

that no such conclusion follows: Bloemaert almost

certainly painted from the life, but this does not mean

the pipes represent a real period instrument any more

than a realistic looking unicorn represents a real

animal. With this in mind it is worth repeating the following cautionary passage from Merryweather (2002):

Most bagpipe illustrations are found in art of one form or another, and the bagpipe historian must appreciate that the artist’s purpose in most cases was his art, not realistic illustration.

“Art historians have gradually learned to accept the fact that ‘realism’ in the visual arts is an elusive phantasm. Potential iconographers of the performing arts, too, should realise that hardly any image can be taken at face value”. [Heck, 1999].12

Bloemaert, Wtewael and ter Brugghen were great artists and it is the quality of their art we should appreciate rather than their insight into the nature of musical instruments.

Post scriptum:

During e-mail correspondence on a draft version of this piece, James Merryweather was kind enough to send me a copy of a Bloemaert-derived picture which was unknown to me (Fig. 20). It fancifully depicts Habbie Simpson (1550-1620), the well-known piper of Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire whose death was lamented in the poem by Robert Sempill dated around 1640 called The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan (Gilchrist, 2002; Stewart, 2005; Paterson, 1849). A history of the parish notes that “there is an oil- painting of unknown date which represents the piper garishly decked with ribbons, flowers and feathers” (MacKenzie, 1902: 281-82) of which this is, presumably, a copy [13] Mackenzie further notes that it was this painting which provided the model for a wooden statue which was placed in an exterior niche of the building known as The Steeple in 1821 which was eventually replaced in 1932 with the bronze copy we can see today (Fig. 21). Interestingly, the artist has altered Bloemaert’s bell to the tulip shape so common of border pipes, as well as decking the drones with the “flags” that the poem describes as decorating Habbie’s pipes. The real surprise, however, is the small drone since here the tuning pin is unambiguously visible (as it is on the statue). Clearly these pipes are missing Merryweather’s part! If I am correct and there is nothing missing in the original, what has happened here? I tentatively conjecture that the artist knew something about pipes and was as perplexed by the strange small drone on the original he was adapting as we are. He may have then assumed, exactly as James did 200 years later, that it must represent a missing drone end and drew his version to fit this

interpretation. What goes around, comes around.


  • I need to thank quite a number of people for discussion on this material at various times. In particular I should like to mention (in alphabetical order): Julian Goodacre, Sean Jones, Maggie Kilbey, Tony Millyard, Jane and Eric Moulder, John Tose and Dr Graham Wells. An especial vote of thanks to Dr James Merryweather for his gracious support and encouragement.
  1. The various provinces which made up the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century mainly existed as separate, self-governing entities with very little interference from The States General (the central government). Partly as a consequence of this, each of the main cities developed its own distinctly local school of painting. Each school was further buoyed by the huge demand for works of art which resulted from the increased prosperity of the middle classes. This shift in clientele also resulted in a change in subject matter away from the religious topics demanded by the Church towards the more secular categories of landscapes, still life and paintings of everyday life of which The Bagpipe Player is one example. Of all the individual schools, perhaps the most distinctive was that of Utrecht. Part of this distinctiveness resulted from the city’s unusual religious and social structure. Although the Catholic Church was not formally recognised within the Republic, it remained a powerful force in Utrecht where about a third of the population (including Bloemaert himself) continued to follow the old religion. One happy consequence of this influence was that it tended to temper the more extreme forms of Protestantism found in the rest of the country. Artistically it allowed for a greater influence from Italian art than could have been expected from a more repressive protestant regime. The most significant of these influences was that of Caravaggio whose work had overwhelmed a group of young Utrecht painters – including ter Brugghen and van Bijlert to be mentioned later – when they visited Rome around 1610 and whose impact can be detected in Bloemaert’s later work including The Bagpipe Player. Although Utrecht was eventually to become something of a backwater in Dutch affairs, during the 1620-30s it was briefly at the forefront of Dutch art being blessed with a number of artists of genius. For more detail on the art of Utrecht during this period see Brown (1997) and Spicer (1997).

  2. Roethlisberger (1993: 268) in his exhaustive monograph on Bloemaert proposes a date for the engraving of around 1630-33 rather than the earlier 1625-28 suggested by Merryweather.

  3. In addition, it might be worth noting that typically with Flemish (split) stocks of this type the longer stock houses the shorter drone as is well-illustrated by the pipes in Brueghel’s Peasant Dance and Peasant Feast (both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). If Bloemaert’s pipes follow this pattern, then the short drone should, indeed, be a short drone.

  4. There are numerous alternative spellings of the surname including Uytewael, Wtenwael and Wttewael. Wiewael, the version which Merryweather uses, also appears, but relatively rarely.

  5. In what I take to be a typological slip, Merryweather misattributes the painting to the 18th century, a minimum of 40 years after Wtewael’s death. Further, Wtewael is thought to have only worked between 1624-30 before turning his attention to the flax business, a business in which he is said to have made “a fine fortune”.

  6. Both Joachim and Pieter’s Shepherd painting are paired with one of a shepherdess holding a lamb. As with the shepherd, the model of the shepherdess in both cases is clearly the same. There are reasons to believe that, in fact, both shepherd and shepherdess are portraits of two of Joachim’s other children, Jan and Antonietta (Lowenthal, 1974: 466). [Lowenthal also suggests that Pieter may have been the model for the shepherd although this would make the later work a self-portrait.] For some discussion of the political and religious significance of shepherds and pipers in the work of Wtewael see Strasbaugh (2007).

  7. The last two points follow from the fact that the model is clearly holding the pipes under the wrong arm. Given that it would be very difficult to keep the bag inflated from this position (even if this were thought to be desirable during the various sittings!), we have to assume that the bag is filled with some more corporeal substance to keep it “inflated”. Indeed, this appears to be the case in all the paintings under consideration here and helps to account for the rather strange embouchures adopted by most the models who are, presumably, simply biting on the mouthpiece to keep it in place.

  8. The painting was sold by Christies in July 2005 and the catalogue states that the attribution to Wtewael was confirmed by Anne Lowenthal, the leading expert on the artist. In comparison with Wtewael’s other works, however, A Shepherd Piper with his Mastiff before a Shed appears a rather crude piece of work and, perhaps, would be better attributed only to the Wtewaels’ workshop rather than Pieter himself. A rather inferior copy of this version known either as Berger riant tenant une cornemuse or Le joueur de musette can be found in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse. Interestingly, the museum used to attribute the painting to the workshop of Abraham Bloemaert.

  9. There is also a companion piece of a shepherdess (who appears to turn to look at the goatherd). Roethlisberger (1993: 323) suggest that Bloemaert may well have been influenced by the shepherd/shepherdess pairs of Joachim and Pieter Wtewael previously mentioned.

  10. James Merryweather has pointed out to me that the small drones in some of David Teniers (1610-1690) from the same period are not dissimilar. This is true but I leave consideration of his work aside since he has (to the best of my knowledge) no links to Utrecht.

  11. Note also the apparent bellows connector just to the side of the bowl. How the bag has managed to be inflated is a mystery.

  12. It might be argued on these grounds that some of my own earlier suggestions – say regarding a potential link between the muchosa and Tilius drones – should be treated with a high degree of caution. Such an argument would almost certainly be correct.

  13. That said, the (somewhat blurry) picture of Habbie in MacKenzie (1902: between pages 280- 281) which purports to be a copy of this painting bears only a passing resemblance to Fig. 20. For example, the chanter more closely resembles that of the statue (note its border-style bell) than that of Fig. 20. Most noticeable difference, however, is that the pipes have three drones along the lines of the GHB, although the third appears to only consist of a bell which mysteriously floats ghost- like around with no clear connecting parts. The small drone is too indistinct to be able to draw any conclusions. All this said, the image has elements which identify it as yet another example of a Bloemaert-based bagpiper. The statue, then, appears to be a combination of both images.


Askew, G. (1931). The portraits of James Allan, the Northumbrian piper. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 4th Series, 5.3, 105-109.

Boone, H. (1983). La Cornemuse. La Renaissance du Livre: Brussels.

Brown, C. (1997) Utrecht Painters of the Dutch Golden Age. National Gallery Publications: London.

Cheape, H. (1994). Stock imagery in piping. Common Stock, 9.2, 10-18.

Gilchrist, J. (2002). Hats off to Habbie Simpson. Common Stock, 17.1, 12-17.

Haine, M. & Meeùs, N. (1985). Instruments de musique anciens à Bruxelles et en Wallonie. P. Mardaga: Brussels.

Heck, T. (1999). Picturing Performance: The Iconography of the Performing Arts in Concept and Practice. University of Rochester Press: Rochester, NY.

Lowenthal, A. (1974). Some paintings by Peter Wtewael (1596-1660). The Burlington Magazine, 116, 458-466.

MacKenzie, R. (1902). Kilbarchan: A Parish History. Paisley: Alexander Gardner.

Merryweather, J. (2002). Regional bagpipes: History or bunk? English Folk Dance and Song Society Newsletter (Summer), 9-12.

Merryweather J. (2004). Missing parts. Chanter, Summer, 10-14.

Paterson, J. (1849). The Poems of the Sempills of Beltree. Edinburgh: Thomas George Stevenson. Roethlisberger, M. (1993). Abraham Bloemaert and His Sons: Paintings and Prints, Vols. 1 and 2. Davaco: Doornspijk, The Netherlands.

Spicer, J. (ed.) (1997). Masters of Light: Dutch Painting in Utrecht during the Golden Age. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT.

Stasbaugh, C. (2007). Call to Action: The Role of Religious Painting in Utrecht’s Golden Age (1590-1640). Unpublished MA dissertation, University of Cincinnati.

Stewart, P. (2005). The Day it Dawes: The Lowland Scots Bagpipe and its Music 1400 to 1715. Ashby Parva: White Hose Tune Books.