The Drummer Boy
Research by Susan Auty
Very little is known about the artist or the provenance of the painting. Langlois is known to have been born in Surrey to a father who engaged in various artistic occupations, such as goldsmith, watchmaker and art dealer. Langlois appears to have achieved some popularity with still life, landscape and genre scenes in watercolour and oil between 1862 and 1873, when he is known to have exhibited at the Royal Academy.(1) There are newspaper reports in the 1870s and 80s of his paintings being auctioned by private collectors, but few merit a specific title, Langlois merely appearing in lists of largely unknown artists whose works were included in the auctions. (2) The titles mentioned suggest the popularity of his figurative work over landscape and still life: Pancake Day was auctioned in Leicester in 1882, Pet Rabbits was auctioned first in Cardiff in 1882 and then again in the same year in Portsmouth. Village School was up for sale in Liverpool in 1888. (3)
Today his genre paintings in oil are still the most popular of his works at sales. Since 1987 ninety-seven of his paintings (of which only four are watercolours and two are still life) have been auctioned including, in 2013, a different version of a child drummer at play.
Little drummer boys accompanied the infantry in many armies in the 19th century and served a useful communications role. The Little Drummer Boy became a familiar character at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s. (4) A particularly famous depiction by Currier and Ives shows the boy with a feather in his cap, (5) whereas in the Langlois depiction the little girl wears the feather. Here, the boy is not formally attached to the military but is clearly pretending, making use of everyday items of clothing to suggest a uniform. The little girl (a younger sister perhaps) follows him with a St Patrick’s saltire flag, suggesting possible Irish ancestry for the children. (6)
A favourite subject of Langlois was children at play. A pair of such paintings showing children playing at being soldiers was auctioned in 2002. (7) Compulsory Service shows a little boy, in a stocking cap and holding a wooden toy sword, holding the reins of his sister’s wooden horse on which she is mounted using a makeshift toy whip. Similarly, The Little Soldier shows a child dressing his dog in a stocking cap; the dog is perched on his hind legs with a toy rifle between his forepaws. The influence of Turner can be seen in the colouring and brushstrokes of the cave-like background, which is almost of more interest than the subject. All three paintings share a background showing signs of poverty, with the children using their imaginations to engage in satisfying play. The Little Drummer Boy is the most accomplished of these works, as can be seen in the children’s sweet expressions and the boy’s skilfully drawn hands. The boy’s eye contact with the viewer also seems designed to engage potential buyers and might account for the popularity of the image.
(1) Panvertu Art Gallery (www.panvertu.com/Langlois.htm) provides basic biographical details gleaned from census records
(2) Auction notices were found in
19th Century British Library Newspapers:
Part II (available online through Gale - via University and FE libraries)
The sources mentioning paintings by title are as follows:
Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury,
21 January 1882, issue 3697, p1
Western Mail (Cardiff),
18, 22, 26 April, 3 May 1882,
issues 4036, 4040, 4043, 4049, p1