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Thomas Gainsborough - illuminations on the road to failure and success

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The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, about 1756
National Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough shared a number of traits with other high achievers in Britain -

He liked to play truant from school - in his case so he could wander in the country and sketch.

He became an apprentice.

He was helped by Brits who founded academies, schools and societies, such as the Royal Society and the Royal Academy, to teach and share ideas. This support was wonderful and essential. William Hogarth's revival of the St Martin's Lane Academy in London provided a framework for Gainsborough's education.

He far exceeded the outlier standard of 10,000 hours of work.

Born in 1727, Gainsborough was the fifth son and ninth child in his family. His father was a publican, a woollen crape-maker and an excellent fencer. His mother realized he loved to sketch and gave him pencils and paper.

After studying at St Martin's, Gainsborough set up as an independent artist. He was 17. He was 21 when a major PR coup came his way.

Hogarth had been helping the Foundling Hospital by decorating its walls, and had attracted the notice of London society. To promote the work of young painters, he had four artists paint roundels of London hospitals. Gainsborough's view of Charterhouse was installed in the Foundling Hospital (where it remains today), and London clients began to seek him out.

By then he was already showing "extraordinary powers of observation with an intense ability to interpret the play of light on the landscape" (Oxford DNB). He had begun to display his signature energy and skill in handling paint.

You might say he was a young man in a hurry. By the age of 19 he had married Margaret, the illegitimate daughter of Henry, third duke of Beaufort, and by 20 he had become a father.

He was 21 when his daughter and his father died, and he moved back to his hometown of Sudbury. Here his two daughters, Mary and Margaret, were born, and he painted the double portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews, showing both what he could do and what he had yet to learn.

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The National Gallery

The couple looks absurdly stiff, but Gainsborough had created a compelling design and an accurate topographical view of the Stour Valley. However, what he wanted to capture was a good likeness - the principal beauty & intention of a portrait. To accomplish this he bundled up his family and moved them to Ipswich where there were more clients interested in commissioning portraits. When he was not in the studio, he wandered the banks of the River Orwell with his notebook, sketching.

His painting of his two daughters was created for his own pleasure when he was 29. He had always loved music - he joined a club to play music - and he had discovered the joy of creating a Picture like the first part of a Tune. . .you can guess what follows, and that makes the second part of the Tune.

But an artist has to pay the bills, and Gainsborough decided to move to a town which attracted the richest clients in England but was not London. As readers of Jane Austen will guess, the place was Bath. After testing the market in 1759, he rented a large house where he could paint and live, settled his family and began charging 8 guineas for a head-and-shoulders portrait. Eventually his price would reach 100 guineas.

It was in his studio in Bath that he painted and showed the painting of Ann Ford. Both the woman and the painting caused a sensation.

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Ann Ford, 1760 

Cincinnati Art Museum

"Ann Ford was a celebrated beauty and professional virtuoso on the English guitar, viola da gamba and musical glasses" (TLS, 15 June 2007). Her father had made sure she had a good education, and she had a voice that thrilled listeners. In 1760 she decided to perform publicly. This outraged her father, who had her arrested.

The Earl of Jersey, who had heard her sing at his house, offered her £800 a year to give up her ambition and become his mistress. Ann firmly declined.

She advertised five concerts at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. Her father surrounded the theatre with runners to prevent concert-goers from attending. Charles Bennet, third earl of Tankerville, had the runners dispersed. Ann earned £1,500.

Gainsborough's portrait dates from the years of her performances, a time when she also defended her honour from malicious slander (the Earl of Jersey causing trouble again) and published the first known instructions for Lessons and Instructions for Playing the Guitar. Her book included several pieces she almost certainly composed.

She was a heroine, really. Gainsborough, who opened his house to musicians, shared her love of music and admired her spirit.

Bath gave Gainsborough interesting companions, a changing source of clients, and access to remarkable collections of paintings, but he was nervous about his abilities. In particular he still didn't feel confident about composing figure groups and full-length portraits.

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Self-portrait, 1758-59
National Portrait Gallery

There is something poignant about a person with this much talent having doubts, but I suspect many do. To tackle the challenge, Gainsborough made countless sketches. The result of his hard work was financial success, but he almost died from overwork, and he continued to meet with financial failure in his landscapes.

For years he painted landscapes and sent them to London, where they were exhibited, commended, and year after year returned to him, "till they stood", wrote Sir William Beechey, "ranged in long lines from his hall to his painting-room." He loved these children of the country, but he could not sell them.

Gainsborough was said to be generous, religious, not an ideal husband and lucky in his wife. If he had a tiff with Margaret about his high-handedness or drinking, he would write a pacifying note, and confide it to his dog Fox, who delivered it to his wife's pet spaniel Tristram. As the note was worded in the person of Fox to Tristram, Margaret cheerfully replied, as from Tristram to Fox.

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Gainsborough Dupont, his nephew, 1770s
The Tate

In 1768 Gainsborough became one of the original 36 members of the Royal Academy. By 1770 he "had united in his portraiture the realism first seen in the head-and-shoulders likenesses painted during his Ipswich years with a bravura technique" (Oxford DNB).

The startling beauty of his portraits of his friends, his family and animals contrast with some of his commissioned portraits. If Gainsborough paints a man he does not know well (Edward, 2nd Viscount Ligonier) and his horse, it will be the horse that steals the painting.

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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
Chatsworth

Symbolism in the huge, overshadowing, suggestively masculine black hat? It's possible. Scattered among the world's great museums, Gainsborough's portraits are a historical record of Britain's 18th century rich and famous. He once remarked that he doubted they had hearts.

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Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher, 1785

National Gallery of Ireland

Gainsborough loved the beauty and simplicity of country life while acutely aware that life in the country could be very hard. Constable later wrote that he was the most benevolent and kind-hearted man.

Gainsborough never quit learning. Before he moved back to London in 1774 he painted the stunning Blue Boy, said to be a riposte to Reynolds' rule to use blue only as an accent.

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The Blue Boy, 1770s
The Huntington

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Detail, Mrs FitzHerbert's bodice, 1784
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Gainsborough could work at high speed, sometimes using brushes on sticks 6 feet long. Close up, the effect is exuberant and impressionistic. The brushstrokes he used to paint the cottage child a year later are quite different. There he seems careful, almost on the edge of tears.

Until the end of his life in 1788 Gainsborough donated money to the poor, followed politics, and sketched and painted. His aim for his paintings had changed. In this last decade he hoped most of all to elicit a response from the beholder.

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The Watering Place, circa 1775-1780
The Tate

In the end he had critical success with some of his landscapes - a case of the critics learning to see?

Comments (1)

Cliff Davis:

I have a sketch of Thomas Gainsborough's a woodland valley,I believe it to be authentic but cannot find anything on the internet about it.I would appreciate any help with this on history or worth.It's framed and on the back is a tag which reads Thomas Gainsborough- a woodland valley.On the bottom is a sticker which reads Styled by Paul B.Victorius-Charlottesville,Virginia

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