ii Childhood and youth
a)The family of the artist
b)Apprenticeship in London
c)The first essays in art
a)Sudbury and Ipswich.
b)Acquaintance with Philip Thicknesse
c)“The portrait of Mr and Mrs
d)The painter’s attitude to his pictures
IV Bath and
a)Coming to Bath
b)The artist's personality and interests
c)Gainsborough's love for theatre
d)Portraits: "The Blue Boy"
e)The foundation of The Royal Academy. "Viscount Kilmorey",
V London.. 13
a)Arrival at London. New commissions
b)"Mrs Graham", "Lady Sheridan", "Mrs
c)"The Morning Walk"
VI The later landscapes.. 16
a)The painter's first love for landscapes
b)"The Harvest Wagon"
c)Experiments with transparencies
VIII THE LIST OF Literature.. 19
Thomas Gainsborough is by general
consent one of the most delightful, spontaneous and naturally gifted of all
English painters and draughtsmen. He was an interesting person, inconsistent, impulsive,
and easily touched. The painter preferred the companionship of fellow artists,
musicians and actors. There was a combination of excitability and bohemianism
on the one hand and practical good sense on the other hand in him.
He was born in 1727 in the small market town of Sudbury in Suffolk. In 1740, when he was only 13, Gainsborough
set out for London, and lodged in the house of a silversmith. Thomas soon made
acquaintance of Gravelot, an accomplished French engraver and draughtsman, who
was his first teacher.
It was in Suffolk that Gainsborough
met his future wife, a beautiful girl named Margaret Burr. The wedding took
place in London in 1746. The couple had 2 daughters.
In 1752 Gainsborough moved
from Sudbury to the seaport of Ipswich. At Ipswich the painter met his first
biographer and best friend, Philip Thicknesse. Gainsborough attracted
Thicknesse by the originality of his works, which lay in the fact that he
unconsciously flouted the fashions of the day and found his inspiration in the
work of the Dutch realistic painters. His 1st landscapes were the “View
of the Charterhouse”, the “Cornard Wood”, “Landguard Fort”
etc (about 1752).
Gainsborough had to paint portraits
to make a living. His portraits show a keen understanding of human nature as
well as of wild nature. He did not use landscape as a background to set off the
figures, but as an integral part of the theme. Suffolk portraits are “Mr and
Mrs Andrews”, “The artist, his wife and child», “Scheming Jack,
“Mr Kirby”, “Mrs Kirby”, “Samuel Kilderbee”(about 1751 — 1752)
Philip Thicknesse offered
Gainsborough to try his fortune in Bath, a popular resort (1759). It was
in Bath that Gainsborough painted the best known of his portraits, the famous “Blue
Gainsborough who was ambitious, went to
London, the center of the art life. The most famous pictures of his London period are “Mrs Graham”, “Mrs Robinson”, “Mrs Siddons”(1785),
“The Morning Walk” (1786).
However, Gainsborough’s first love
was for landscape. The best-known of his landscapes are “The Grand Landscape”,
“Harvest Wagon”, “Landscape with cattle” etc.
The painter died on August
2, 1788. As Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President of the Royal Academy, said in his obituary, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in
the history of the Art among the most famous English painters.
Thomas Gainsborough is by
general consent one of the most delightful, spontaneous and naturally gifted of
all English painters and draughtsmen.
Gainsborough’s lifetime spanned an
age of profound change in British painting and in the public’s attitude towards
British artists. He was born in 1727, when Hogarth was painting his first genre
scenes and conversation pieces, and died in 1788, when Boydell’s commissions
for the Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall were giving a new impetus to British
History painting. Gainsborough had an eye as sharp as Rembrandt’s, but he had
more than a just perceptive eye; he possessed an extraordinary capacity to
translate what he observed into the medium of oil paint which puts him firmly,
along with Rembrandt, and with artists such as Velazquez, Manet, Renoir and
Picasso, into the top flight of “born painters”.
Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727
and baptized on 14th May of that year at the Independent Meeting
House in Friar’s Lane in the small market town of Sudbury in Suffolk. Edward
III had selected Sudbury as one of the places in which to settle Flemish
weavers, and like so many East Anglian towns its prosperity was built on the
proceeds of the cloth trade with which the Gainsborough family was connected
for several generations.
The painters’ father, John
Gainsborough, was one of the last of the family to engage in the manufacture of
woollen goods; but he is said to have discovered the secret of woollen shroud
making in Coventry, and to have introduced it into Sudbury, where, for a time,
he enjoyed a monopoly of the trade. However, he does not seem to have been very
successful in the conduct of his affairs, and his property at the time of his
death in 1748 was renounced by his wife and children in favour of a creditor.
He was generous to a fault and possessed a great sense of humour, both of which
were richly inherited by his son.
Gainsborough’s mother was the sister
of the Reverend Humphrey Burroughs, the headmaster of the ancient Grammar
School at Sudbury, which Thomas and his brothers attended. Thomas had 4
brothers and 4 sisters.
The eldest, John, nicknamed “Scheming
Jack”, was an ingenious, if somewhat purposeless inventor, and on one occasion
he attempted to fly from the roof of a summerhouse with a pair of wings of his
own manufacture, but landed in the ditch, profoundly humiliated, but fortunately
unhurt. Humphrey, another brother, was a Nonconformist clergyman to whom Thomas
was always much attached; like John, he took a great interest in mechanics and
engineering, but had more capacity in applying his ideas. He was awarded a
premium by the society of Arts for a mill plough and a hive mill.
When John Constable visited Sudbury many years after Gainsborough was working there, he said, “It is a delightful
country for a painter, I fancy, I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow
tree,” and Gainsborough often said in later life that Suffolk had made him a
In 1740, when he was only 13, Gainsborough
set out for London, and lodged in the house of a silversmith. Through the good
offices of the silversmith, Gainsborough made acquaintance of the Frenchman,
Gravelot. Gravelot was in England for a number of years, and is chiefly
remembered for his very charming vignettes and designs for book illustrations.
He was both an accomplished engraver and a sensitive and delicate draughtsman
and, working with him, Gainsborough did not only acquire skill in the use of
the engrave and etching needle, but also something of that sense of style and
easy refinement associated with the French school. Gravelot had considerable
standing among the artists of the day and was very friendly with Hogarth. He
was, like Hogarth, a caricaturist and mocked somewhat defiantly the artistic
shibboleths of the time. In the small artistic circle in London, Gainsborough
no doubt met Hogarth, whose independent attitude would be likely to appeal to
him, and whose fresh approach to the problems of painting had much influence on
Gainsborough’s love of landscape
painting would naturally attract him to Suffolk, and he probably paid many
visits to Sudbury while he was studying in London. It is possible that it was
in Suffolk that Gainsborough met his future wife, a beautiful girl named
Margaret Burr. The wedding took place in London in 1746 at Dr Keith’s Mayfair
Chapel which was used for the celebration of clandestine marriages. Evidently,
the young couple had not been able to secure the approval of their elders, and
resorted to a runaway affair.
It is not known exactly when Gainsborough
returned to Suffolk to live, but he probably spent a good deal of time at Sudbury even before he finally gave up his rooms in London. Gainsborough’s 2 daughters,
Mary and Margaret, were both born in Sudbury, one in 1748 and the other 1752,
and judging from the number of portraits of them as children, their father
often prevailed upon them to pose for him. Gainsborough had an inkling that the
girls were ill fitted for a normal society life, and might not easily find
suitable husbands. His foreboding proved all true.
It was probably about 1752 that Gainsborough
moved from Sudbury to the seaport of Ipswich where he lived until he went to Bath in 1759. At Ipswich the painter met his first biographer, Philip Thicknesse. According
to his own story, Thicknesse was walking with in his pretty town garden and
perceived a melancholy faced country man with his arms together leaning over a
garden wall. Thicknesse stepped forward with intention to speak to the person
and did not perceive until he was close up that it was a wooden man painted on
a shaped board. He then learnt the address of the painter.
Gainsborough attracted Thicknesse by
the originality of his works. His originality lay in the fact that he
unconsciously flouted the fashions of the day and found his inspiration in the
work of the Dutch realistic painters. In the XVIII century realistic landscapes
were called “those drudging mimics of nature’s most uncomely coarseness”. The 1st
landscapes were the “View of the Charterhouse”, the “Cornard Wood”, “Landguard
Gainsborough achieved his 1st
professional success as a landscape painter, but this line of business was not
profitable at the time, and he had to paint portraits to make a living. Some of
the most interesting of the Suffolk pictures are the small portraits in
landscape settings, in which he could combine his gifts in both branches of his
art. These portraits are in a sense “conversation pieces”, which were then so
popular in England, but Gainsborough succeeded in giving a special character to
that convention. His portraits, although sometimes rather stiff, show a keen
understanding of human nature as well as of wild nature, linked with a rare
appreciation of the true relation of the one to the other. He did not use
landscape as a background to set off the figures, but as an integral part of
The most successful of these pictures
is undoubtedly the portrait of “Mr and Mrs Andrews” which is still in the
possession of the Andrews family. They are not sitting on an elegant terrace,
in a well-groomed landscape, but on an ordinary garden seat looking at their
crops, as if Gainsborough caught them unaware of his presence when they were
resting during a stroll round their property. Mr Andrews has just shot a bird
which Mrs Andrews is carrying with no town-bred qualms although she is
charmingly dressed in her best frock for the painting. The figures are so
naturally posed that they seem part of the landscape, which is painted with a
degree of realism unprecedented at the time. It is much more brilliant in
colour than any other of the Suffolk portraits and the trees and fields are
attuned to the gay blue gown Mrs Andrews is wearing. The whole conception in
its simplicity and realism is more nearly related to the plein air
painting of the XIX century than to the mannered conversation piece.
In most of the other early portrait
groups, the landscape gives pride of place to the figures, but is always a
fitting and thoughtful accompaniment to them. The delightful portrait of “The
artist, his wife and child” was probably painted about 1751. The landscape
in this picture is less clearly defined than in the Andrews, but the
rather ethereal blue-green trees fit the mood of the picture and accord with
the dreamy expression on the painter’s face.
Among other early portraits are that
of the painter’s brother “Scheming Jack,
“Mr Kirby”, “Mrs Kirby”, “Samuel Kilderbee”.
One of the loveliest of the later Suffolk portraits is “The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly”, surely one of
the most beautiful of all pictures of children, so tender in its feeling for
the delicate forms and yet so solidly conceived as a pictorial design.
Gainsborough’s letters to his friends
throw some light on his attitude to his craft. In later life Gainsborough was
much concerned about the hanging of his pictures. It was particularly important
to Gainsborough that his pictures should be hung in a proper light since he
relied for his effects for delicate drawing and lively handling of the paint
rather than on striking effects of colour or emphatic chiaroscuro.
In the Suffolk pictures Gainsborough
had not yet fully enough developed his manner, but “the odd scratches and
marks” were beginning to make their appearance. They are evident in the
treatment of the drapery, the painting of the hair and in other details. For
the most part Gainsborough’s sitters seem to have been also his friends. No
doubt Gainsborough’s early study of landscape influenced his vision as a
portrait painter, he saw a head, as he saw a tree, enveloped in light, and he
was profoundly interested in the delicate gradations of tones.
Bath and fashion
Although Gainsborough evidently had
quite a flourishing trade in Suffolk, he admitted that he was afraid to put
people off when they were in a mood to sit, and the potential local clientele
must have been limited. Philip Thicknesse, who was accustomed to winter in Bath, pressed Gainsborough to abandon the quiet Suffolk town and to try his fortune in the
West country. Naturally, London was the centre of the art world, but there was
in England no town than Bath which provided such opportunities for the portrait
painter. The city was a favourite resort of pleasure seekers from all parts of England and of all ranks of society.
On his arrival at Bath, Gainsborough
took a house about ¾ of a mile in the Lansdowne Road. Lansdowne Road leads up a hill to the open country and would naturally have attracted
Gainsborough the landscape painter, who although he could never persuade
himself to renounce the pleasures of town, always sighed for the country. What
did he look like physically? Portraits leave a clear impression of his
personality; the sharp turn of the head, the quivering nostrils, the
half-parted lips, the searching eyes, all these add up to an image of somebody
vibrantly alive — alert, observant, excitable, highly strung. He was
inconsistent, impulsive, and, of course, easily touched. However, his
constitution and nervous system were by no means robust. He thought and acted
like a gentleman and was not irreligious, although there was a combination of
excitability and bohemianism on the one hand and practical good sense on the
other hand in him.
Gainsborough was impatient and found
it hard to contain himself when he was in pursuit of some new material or
pigment he had found effective. Gainsborough cared passionately for the quality
of his materials, and for the excellence of technique.
A visit to Gainsborough’s studio soon
became the mode. It was the custom in Bath to allow visiting painters to place
specimens of their work in the Rump Room with their scale of charges.
Gainsborough on his arrival followed the usual practice and his studio quickly
attracted great interest. He became so popular that a contemporary wit said,
“Fortune seemed to take up her abode with him; her house became Gainsborough”.
The painter must have known most of
the distinguished and elegant folk who visited Bath, but he never enjoyed
polite society and infinitely preferred the companionship of fellow artists,
musicians and actors. He was not only “passionately fond of music”, but himself
performed on several instruments — his friends said he “was too conspicuous to
study music scientifically, but his ear was good and his natural taste was
refined... he always played to his feelings”.
The stage had an irresistible appeal
for Gainsborough who was on excellent terms with the manager of the Bath
Theatre and had access to a box on all occasions. He met many of the actors who
visited Bath, including the great Garrick, of whose character and ability he
had the very highest opinion. The artists became lifelong friends; both had a
very nice sense of humour, and it is amusing to read of them visiting Mr
Christie’s rooms in London, when the auctioneer is said to have remarked that
the presence of those two with their lovely banter greatly added to the
interests in his sales.
It was in Bath that Gainsborough painted
the best known of his portraits, the famous “The Blue Boy” (1770). It
seems that the model was Jonathan Buttall. The boy’s father, an ironmonger in
the Greek Street, was an intimate friend of Gainsborough and one of the few
people invited to be present at his burial.
Mr Buttall was a man of means and taste, and frequently entertained artists and
musicians at his home. It was not a commissioned work at all: X-rays have
revealed the beginnings of the portrait of an older man under the paint
surface, and, thus the fact that the “The Blue Boy” was painted on a
discarded canvas. The picture was clearly done for Gainsborough’s own pleasure.
Some very fine portraits of men were
painted by Gainsborough in the late 60’s. That of “Viscount Kilmorey” is
now in the National Gallery. Gainsborough has seized upon an easy slouching
attitude which one feels the sitter would naturally have adopted. The paint is
applied in those broken direct touches so characteristic of the later work and
is more akin to the workmanship of Manet or Goya than to any contemporary XVIII
century painter. The subtle play of movement around the mouth is particularly
characteristic, whilst the vigorous treatment of the tree trunk is an admirable
foil to the delicate modelling of the head.
An event of the first importance to
the artistic world occurred in 1768 in the foundation of the Royal Academy. Gainsborough sent to the first exhibition a portrait of Lady Molyneux,
which was one of Gainsborough’s most successful works of the period. The black
lace scarf gracefully draped over her shoulders, shows off the beautiful hands
of great advantage and emphasizes the delicacy of the tones of the
cream-coloured satin. The simple compact design and the sureness of the drawing
give the picture a strength and depth which are enhanced by the very delicacy
However, Gainsborough soon quarreled
with the authorities of the Royal Academy and sent no pictures to the
exhibitions until 1777.
Before he left Bath, Gainsborough had explored that exquisitely subtle range of tones which he was to
develop so effectively in the symphonies of pearly colour which distinguish the
best of his later portraits. He had also evolved his beautiful brushwork, which
makes even his duller portraits a delight to painters studying the mysteries of
their craft; his power of invention may have weakened when he became a
fashionable portrait painter, but is power of expressive handling increased
throughout his life.
Gainsborough who was ambitious, was
naturally anxious to go to London and put his work to the test of competition
with Sir Joshua Reynolds on his own ground.
Gainsborough arrived in London in the early summer of 1774. The family moved into the western wing at Schomberg
House in Pall Mall. The house, which was formerly the property of the Dukes of
Schomberg, was then owned by the painter, Astley. He lived in the central
portion and let the eastern part to a notorious charlatan, Dr Graham, who
established there his Temple of Health. With his acute sense of humour,
Gainsborough must have had considerable amusement from the throngs of visitors
attending the lectures next door.
His many friends in the musical and
theatrical world welcomed Gainsborough with open arms, and one of his first activities
in London was to assist in the decoration of the new music room.
Gainsborough achieved sufficient fame
at Bath to be elected to the Council of the Royal Academy almost immediately he
arrived in London, although he characteristically refused to take any part in
the proceedings of that august body. In spite of his neglect of the Royal Academy, Gainsborough evidently acquired considerable business within a short time of his
arrival in London.
It was in 1775 that Gainsborough
first met the Reverend Henry Bate, afterwards Sir Henry Bate Dudley, who later
became his constant friend and companion. Bate, the son of the country
clergyman, himself took orders before embarking on his career as a newspaper
magnate. He helped to found the “Morning Post”, of which paper he was
editor until he left it in order to establish the “Morning Herald”. Bate
was a passionate admirer of Gainsborough’s painting and he lost no opportunity
of bringing it to the notice of the public.
In 1777 Gainsborough again
exhibited at the Academy. When the exhibition opened two of Gainsborough’s most
distinguished pictures were on view, the portrait of Mrs Graham and the
fine landscape, “The Watering Place”.
Lady Graham seems to have been
something of a paragon, since she was not only elegant and accomplished but a
more than an ordinarily competent housewife. Her husband adored her, and when
she died young, in the south of France, went off to seek his fortune in the
wars, and could never bear to look at the portrait, which he sent to the warehouse
in Scotland, where it remained until 1859, when it was bequeathed to the
National Gallery of Scotland. Gainsborough was evidently anxious to make a
success of portrait, and took a considerable time in working out his idea.
A good likeness of Mr Christie, the
auctioneer, who was an intimate friend of the painter, was also exhibited this
year. His rooms were close to Gainsborough’s house, and Gainsborough often
dropped in with Garrick in order to examine the pictures on view for sale.
Gainsborough was much interested in the works of the old masters and bought a
number of pictures. An interesting sidelight on Gainsborough’s judgement of pictures was shown when in 1787,
he was called upon to give evidence in the case of selling a false Poussin.
Gainsborough said that although he was usually charmed with Poussin’s work, the
picture in question was in his view deficient in harmony, taste, ease and
elegance, and that it produced him no emotion. When he was asked whether
something more than a bare inspection by the eye was necessary for a judge of
pictures, Gainsborough said he conceived “the eye of a painter to be equal to the
tongue of the lawyer”.
One of Gainsborough’s best-known
portraits was that of Mrs Robinson, known as “Perdita”, because it was when playing
that character in “A Winter’s Tale” that she first attracted the notice
of the Prince of Wales. The beautiful young actress was a fitting subject for
Gainsborough’ brush and shows him in his most poetic vein. She is sitting on a
bank dressed in a white muslin frock with a little white dog by her side and
holds in her hand a miniature of the Prince of Wales. The symphony of white and
grey-green is only relieved by the blue sash and the highly coloured complexion
of the actress.
In 1785 Mrs Siddons, an
actress, sat to Gainsborough for the well-known portrait in the National
Gallery. Though the painter lavished his painterly skill on the silks and
satins and furs of Mrs Siddons’s dress, attention is firmly concentrated on the
beautiful and delicately modelled head, which is the principal light in the
picture and stands out against the broad red curtain that closes the
Another distinguished portrait of the
same year is that of Mrs Sheridan, where the flimsy draperies seem to be as
much alive with movement as the landscape background is tenderly felt.
Gainsborough had such a grasp of form and rhythm that he did not have to rely on vivid
colour contrasts in order to emphasize the shapes and hold his composition
together, but insisted, rather, on the general atmospheric effect, which is
conveyed by the subtle and sensitive brushwork.
The Morning Walk, a portrait of Squire
Hallet and his wife, was painted in 1786, and gave Gainsborough’s talents full
scope. In the design he combined dignity with informality in a
characteristically English way; the brushwork gives the illusion of soft
breezes blowing through the trees, and the linear rhythms and colour harmonies
are blended in a perfect symphony. Gainsborough summed up with extraordinary
brilliance and sympathy the aristocratic life of the XVIII century, its
elegance, refinement and confidence; and although it is a picture of a
particular age it has the enduring qualities of all great art.
The later landscapes
Gainsborough’s first love was for
landscape, but he always considered his chief business to be in the “face way”,
and he did not allow his fancy to interfere unduly with his trade in
portraiture, which increased so rapidly after his move to Bath. However,
Gainsborough evidently spent a good deal of time in painting landscapes. The
most famous of his landscapes painted before he moved to London are “The
Grand Landscape”, “Harvest Wagon”, “Landscape with cattle”
The “Harvest Wagon”
was exhibited at the Royal academy in 1771. The picture has warm colouring with subtle combination
of autumn tints and delicate pastel shades, and peasants seem active, lively
people. The picture is painted very thinly, and the lovely figure of the boy
leading the horses is hardly more than outlined with the brush with all the
vigour of a
pen and ink sketch. In the same way the form and movement of the horses is conveyed
with a few infinitely telling lines. Gainsborough has immortalized the simple
scene conveying its essential dignity.
Gainsborough used some of
his sketches of mountain scenery for the little show box which he made in order
to show transparencies — pictures painted on glass and lighted from behind with
candles in order to give moonlight effect. A contemporary remarked that
Gainsborough’s transparencies of land and sea were so natural that one stepped
back for fear of being splashed.
In the spring of 1788
Gainsborough went to Westminster Hall to hear our speeches of his friends
Sheridan and Burke and sitting with his back to the window caught a severe
chill. A few weeks later, the swelling in his neck increased and he died on
August 2, 1788.
Constable, felt deeply the romance of the ordinary happenings of the countryside,
but he was born in the age of Reason, when balanced composition and style
counted for more than atmospheric effects. He was always torn between his
natural desire to please and his instinct as an artist. He loved England and English country as few have done before or since, and, at a time when England had hardly been discovered as a field for landscape painters, Gainsborough was painting the
fields and lanes of Suffolk, investing these simple scenes with poetry and
romance. At his death, this modest and lovable man was the subject of one of
the most thoughtful and beautifully written obituaries accorded to an English
painter. Such was the generous tribute of his great rival as a portraitist, Sir
Joshua Reynolds. “If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to
acquire to us the honourable distinction of an English School, the name of
Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of the Art among
the very first of that rising name.”
1) Mary Woodall. Thomas Gainsborough: his life and work
2) John Hayes. Gainsborough