John Burr was born in Edinburgh in 1834. Both he and his younger brother, Alexander Hohenlohe Burr (1835-1899), became practicing artists. At the age of fourteen the older Burr began painting portraits of local notables in small Scottish towns. Five years later he entered the Trustee's Academy in Edinburgh where he studied under Robert Scott Lauder (1803-1869). While a student he began exhibiting at the Royal Scottish Academy, and his contributions of 1857 and 1858 were purchased by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland. In the year 1861 both Burr brothers moved to London. They began exhibiting at the Royal Academy the next year.
Almost all of the eighteen works that the elder Burr exhibited at the Academy were precise, often humorous genre scenes reminiscent of the work of his compatriot Thomas Faed (1826-1900) but lacking somewhat in the latter's sympathy for his subjects. As one critic put it, the characters depicted by Burr "are always characters." Nevertheless, he made a reputation for himself, and was an Associate of the Old Watercolour Society and President of the Society of British Artists, preceding Whistler in that post. He stopped exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1882 and died in 1893, spending the last years of his life in relative obscurity.
The Peepshow is typical of Burr's oeuvre. It is precisely painted, and the subject is one with which the viewer identifies easily. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year as Thomas Webster's Battle of Waterloo. This more complex and more amusing composition also depicted a penny peepshow concluded: "The Peepshow . . . is a humorous and very clever composition of its kind, presented in a manner that would bring credit to any artist, even of high reputation."
Such unpretentious scenes of childhood have never lost their popular appeal; the Saturday Evening Post covers of Norman Rockwell are their twentieth-century descendants. One hundred and six years after it appeared on the walls of the Royal Academy, The Peepshow itself appeared on the cover of the Christmas Number of The Illustrated London News.
Provenance: Anon. Sale: Christie's, Hopetoun House, Lothian, October 15, 1969, Lot 117. Fine Art Society, London.
Exhibitionsl Royal Academy, 1864, No. 523.; 100 Years of Scottish Painting, English Speaking Union Gallery (presented by the Fine Art Society), Edinburgh, 1970, No. 11. The Art and Mind of Victorian England: Paintings from the Forbes Magazine Collection, University Gallery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1974, No. 4 (reproduced in catalogue).
Dafforne, James. "John Burr," Art Journal (1869): 337.
Forbes, Christopher. The Royal Academy Revisited, 1837-1901. Ed. and Intro. by Allen Staley. New York: Forbes Magazine, 1975. No. 4.The Illustrated London News, Christmas Number, 1970. (reproduced on front cover in color).
Waldfogel, Melvin. "Introduction." The Art and Mind of Victorian England: Paintings from the Forbes Magazine Collection. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1974.
Wood, Christopher. The Dictionary of Victorian Painters, London, 1971, p. 19, reproduced p. 226.
Last modified 26 June 2020