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Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas1Thomas Gainsborough, born 14th May 1727, was a famous 18th Century English painter known for his evocative portraiture and landscapes and is most famous for his portrait known as ‘The Blue Boy’.

EARLY LIFE Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, England. His father was a weaver involved with the wool trade. Thomas Gainsborough was one of nine children born to John Gainsborough. Perhaps due to his mother’s penchant for painting flowers and encouraging her son’s talent with a pencil, Gainsborough assembled a rather impressive portfolio at a young age. By 10, he had drawn some local village landscapes, and added caricatures and other facial studies. His father was sufficiently impressed with his work to allow him to go to London, England, where he studied at an academy in St. Martin’s Lane under the renowned William Hogarth and other masters known for etching, historical painting and portraiture.

In 1740, he fell in love & married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, and her dowry allowed him to set up a studio in Ipswich by the time he was 20. Here he struggled to earn a living painting portraits of local merchants and their families.

Though famous painters like Hogarth and van Dyck were influences, he favored landscapes, becoming a master of light and brushwork, but when Gainsborough shifted to portraiture for income, his talent attracted the likes of King George III and other nobles, and made him a contender for the position of royal painter. When elected a founding member of the Royal Academy, he moved his studio to London. In London he first trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot but eventually became associated with William Hogarth and his school.

CAREER AND PAINTING STYLE Gainsborough’s working life falls naturally into three periods of fourteen years each: from 1746-60 at Ipswich, from 1760-74 at Bath, and 1774-88 in London. Each of these three periods have their separate characteristics, but the distinction between the first and second periods is much more clearly marked than that between the second and third. At the beginning of his first period his handling is close and precise, both in his portraits and landscapes, and probably owed a good deal to the example of Dutch realist painters, many of whose works were in private collections in East Anglian houses. Gainsborough was so natural and instinctive a painter that the influence of others upon him never resulted in imitation, and his reactions to art and to nature were equally personal. He never strove after originality, and certainly was never in any way a conscious revolutionary, and yet in some ways his fine art painting was more original than that of any other English painter.

PORTRAITURE AND FIGURATIVE WORKS Gainsborough’s earliest known work has neither the freedom of handling nor the lively power of drawing with the brush which later became such marked characteristics, but before he left Ipswich a transformation had begun to come over his handling, and the Dutch meticulousness was replaced by a more lively but not less delicate touch which corresponded more exactly to his own apprehensions of nature. It is the virtue of his art that it never gives us the feeling of life arrested, but of life that is passing, slipping by even as we look. This is what gives the poignant sadness to his painting, an unbearable pathos pointed, like Watteau’s, with a gaiety beyond recall.

The pictures which Gainsborough painted of his two daughters as children, especially the one in which the two girls chase a butterfly (1755, National Gallery London), illustrate this quality more than his other early pictures. They show also his extraordinary sensitiveness to form, and the delicacy with which he could observe and record the most subtle variation of surface and contour. By the date at which he was painting these portraits of his daughters, Gainsborough’s powers of drawing with the brush were already highly developed, but a further freedom of handling followed his move to Bath.

Thomas2BATH: INFLUENCE OF VAN DYCKMATURITY OF STYLE In Bath he fell under the spell of Van Dyck, whose influence, together with that of Rubens, is the most important in the later part of his career. It is typical of him that no trace of direct imitation of Van Dyck is to be found anywhere in his work. An increase of dignity in posing, a more regal sweep in the disposition of draperies, more distinguished compositions, are the outward and visible signs of Van Dyck’s influence, but all that is most precious in his work remains inalienably his own. Noted works from this time include: Mrs Philip Thicknesse (1760), Mrs William Henry Portman (1767)

At Bath his style reached its highest development, and the flimsiness and carelessness which mar some of his later work had not yet appeared. He continued to paint landscapes as well as portraits, but his growing practice as a portrait-painter gave him less and less time for it, and after his early years at Bath he did not have much opportunity for direct study from nature. The characteristics of his mature work are an extraordinarily delicate perception of beauty and expressiveness in women’s faces, a most subtle and unforced grasp of character, a sense of fresh and throbbing life, all expressed with unsurpassed freedom and lightness of touch in the thinnest and most liquid pigment.

For some the best examples of Gainsborough’s portraiture in England, see the National Portrait Gallery in London.

GAINSBOROUGH’S LANDSCAPE ART Gainsborough is the father of English landscape painting. His early work in the careful and elaborate Dutch manner is atmospheric and true. The “Cornard Wood” (National Gallery) illustrates this phase of his work. It is full of close and searching study as were his other early landscapes. On this foundation of detailed study his later style was built.

After he had moved from Ipswich to Bath the influence of Rubens superseded that of the Dutch painters, and, though the sincerity of feeling survives, his landscapes become actually more artificial in structure and colour. Trees of a warm rich brown give value to the blues of his skies, and the masses of his subject are arranged with a more deliberate art. Yet even when most influenced by others Gainsborough remains an instinctive painter.

The subject-matter of his pictures is mostly drawn from the East Anglian scenes of his youth, and in his later work these scenes are invested with the association of memory.

Gainsborough was never drawn to the classical school of landscape any more than he was to the ‘grand style’ in figure-painting, yet these pictures are in a sense ideal, and they are seen through the golden haze of happy memories, which gives them a similar sadness to that of his figure-pictures. This was Gainsborough’s world of escape from the daily jars and irritations of his life as a portrait-painter, and it is full of an innocent rustic life which differentiates it sharply from the world of Richard Wilson. In his innocent and simple approach Gainsborough was the forerunner of John Constable. He has the same love of great masses of trees, and the same love of skies and moving clouds. If the paths of his life had been different he might well have forestalled the innovations of Constable’s art, but as it was it was left to Constable and the tragically short-lived Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) to translate this intimate love of homely nature into terms which revolutionized the art of Europe.

Gainsborough worked in water-colours as well as oils, and his sketches in this medium have a delightful dash, spontaneity, and breadth, but they, too, have an element of convention in them. They belong to the old master tradition of water-colour, and are sketches of arrangement and light and shade preparatory to oil-paintings rather than finished works of art in themselves. But this does not detract from their delightfulness, and beside Gainsborough’s charcoal, chalk, water-colour sketches and soft ground etchings, the drawings of the early topographical draughtsmen look very timid and tentative.

LATER LIFE In later life, Gainsborough started painting idealized themes of rural life, such as “The Cottage Door” (1780), along with pictures of rural beggar children, gypsies and child labourers - sad and ragged but still well-fed. Occasionally his pictures became flimsy and formless. In any event, the business of professional portrait-painting irked him. He had little patience with boring and tiresome sitters, and he was too natural and instinctive a painter for this not to show in his work.

At his best Thomas Gainsborough was a very great artist, and his pictures have qualities which may be looked for in vain elsewhere. The quality of his work was inimitable, and except in landscape he exercised little influence on the English school. From the beginning to the end he painted as his own exquisite sensibilities directed, and in no other way.

DEATH AND LEGACY Thomas Gainsborough died of cancer on August 2, 1788, at the age of 61 in London. He requested to be buried at St. Anne’s Church at Kew, next to the famous botanical artist Francis Bauer. It was also the royal family’s primary residence and known for its lush and varied landscape. It was a fitting locale, since Gainsborough had returned to his love of landscape painting in his waning years and become known for his simple settings, elegant brushwork and extraordinary use of light. And yet, Gainsborough’s most recognizable painting today is probably a portrait of the son of a wealthy merchant, known simply as The Blue Boy. Legend has it that Gainsborough tried to reconcile with Reynolds, his rival, at his deathbed. The two share a reputation as the most famous portraitists of the latter 18th century. Gainsborough is also known as one of the originators of the 18th century British landscape school. A later painter with a similar reputation,
John Constable, was a huge fan, saying of Gainsborough’s landscapes, “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.” His only pupil was his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont. He worked as Gainsborough’s studio assistant but his own work was a feeble imitation of his uncle’s brilliant masterpieces.

Many of Gainsborough’s paintings can be seen in art collections all over the world. His famous landscape, “The Watering Hole” and the portrait “Mr and Mrs Andrews” can be seen at the National Gallery in London. The well known “Portrait of a Lady in Blue” painted in the late 1770s is on display at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Thomas3GAINSBOROUGH HOUSE MUSEUM Dating to around 1520, the house that now occupies 46 Gainsborough Street was the birthplace of one of Britain’s greatest artists. Built around the centrepiece of a huge mulberry tree, the house’s deceptively large garden dates back to the early 1600s, and is maintained all year round with plants that would have been available in Gainsborough’s lifetime. Gainsborough’s parents bought the house for £230 in 1722 and it remained in the family until 1792. When the house was sold at auction, it was described as ‘consisting of a most excellent Brickt Mansion - replete with every convenient Accommodation for a genteel Family, or principal Manufacturer, having upon the Premises two Buildings - 147 Feet long, with an Orchard, well planted with Fruit Trees in a high state of Perfection, which with a Flower Garden, paved Yard, and Scite of the Buildings, contain about two acres’.

It continued as a private residence until the 1920s when it was converted into a guesthouse and tearooms. Lunches and teas were served and they also catered for wedding receptions. The garden was frequently open in the summer, both for teas and the hire of the two tennis courts. Photographs and reminiscences from this time indicate that the house adapted well for this purpose and was popular with both guests and locals alike.

After the Second World War, the house had various functions including a period as an antique shop. In the mid 1950s Mr Doward, an English art dealer working in America who had rediscovered a Gainsborough painting, bought the house intending to live in it. However, he failed to convince his wife to move to Sudbury. Therefore, in 1956 the house was once again put up for sale.

After four centuries as a private residence and forty years in limbo, the building was transformed into a museum and monument to Thomas Gainsborough following a campaign by the Gainsborough’s House National Appeal Committee. Following generous donations of art, furniture and decorative objects, the house opened to the public in 1961 as a museum, monument and centre for the arts and has remained open for over 50 years. The House’s permanent collection encompasses the whole of Thomas Gainsborough’s career, from his early portraiture and landscapes to later works from his London period. These works are displayed alongside 18th-century furniture and memorabilia. There is a varied programme of exhibitions on both historic British and contemporary art throughout the year.


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