Cittern. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.Artist/Maker: Unknown

Created: 1760-1780

Origin/Purchase: English

Materials: maple, pine, and other woods, gilded metal rose

Dimensions: L: 77.5 (30 1/2 in.)

Location: Parlor

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by gift to Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist in 1816; by descent to Ellen Coolidge Burke; by gift to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1946

Accession Number: 1946-6

Historical Notes: The cittern, or English guitar, was a popular drawing-room instrument in the second half of the eighteenth century. Although it has straight sides and a generally flat back like instruments in the guitar family, it is more closely related to the lute, and its metal strings are plucked with the fingertips in the same manner.[1] Until about 1825 the term "guitar" referred almost exclusively to the English guitar, while the Spanish guitar was identified as "Spanish." The English guitar was not, however, a specifically English product. They were also made in other countries and were especially popular in France as well as in Virginia.[2] When his younger daughter Maria joined him in Paris in 1787, he paid eighty-four livres for a guitar and regularly recorded payments to the "Guitar master for Polly."[3] Maria Jefferson's guitar came to America with the rest of the family's baggage, but this cittern appears to have been purchased by Jefferson in Virginia in 1816.[4] His granddaughter, Virginia Randolph Trist, recalled in 1839:

I had for a long time a great desire to have a guitar. A lady of our neighborhood was going to the West, and wished to part with her guitar, but she asked so high a price that I never in my dreams aspired to its possession. One morning, on going down to breakfast, I saw the guitar. It been sent up by Mrs.&— for us to look at, and grandpapa told me that if I would promise to learn to play on it I should have it. I never shall forget my ecstacies. I was but fourteen years old, and the first wish of my heart was unexpectedly gratified.[5]

In 1824 Virginia Randolph received another guitar, possibly the guitar from Paris that Jefferson had given to his daughter Maria. In a letter to Nicholas Trist, her future husband, Virginia wrote that her father had come from Richmond and brought "a spanish Guitar," a gift from a cousin named Wayles Baker. She explained:

It belonged formerly to Aunt Maria Eppes, and she gave it to Mrs. Baker. It appears to be a very sweet toned instrument, and looks all spanish. I have practised but little on it as yet, because I have not much time for music this month. Did you ever hear a Spanish Guitar, and do you think it agreable? Perhaps it will support my voice, which is, you know, very weak, and somewhat cracked.[6]

The Spanish guitar is unlocated, but the cittern descended in the family of Virginia Trist. The maple and pine instrument with wood inlay has watch-key tuning invented in the 1760s by John N. Preston of London.[7]

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 422.


  • 1. Allan Kendall, The World of Musical Instruments (London: Hamyln Publishing Group, Ltd., 1972), 27; Robert Spenser and Ian Harwood, "English Guitar," in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), 706.
  • 2. The Eye of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia 1981), 20; Kendall, 27.[/fn>

    As early as 1776, Jefferson recorded the purchase of guitar strings in Philadelphia, suggesting perhaps that his wife played the instrument.Jefferson, August 31, 1776, in MB, 1:423.

  • 3. Jefferson, September 5, 1788, in ibid, 1:714. and April 6, 1789, in ibid., 1:729.
  • 4. Jefferson, March 4, 1816, in ibid., 2:1319.
  • 5. Virginia Randolph Trist to Harry S. Randall, May 26, 1839, in Randall, Domestic Life, 348.
  • 6. Virginia Jefferson Randolph to Nicholas P. Trist, January 9, 1824. Nicholas P. Trist Papers. University of North Carolina.
  • 7. Spenser and Harwood, 706.

Tag this

Login or register to tag items

Add comment

Login to post comments