Man in a Hurry
Gainsborough's daughters, Mary and Margaret,
Thomas Gainsborough shared a number of unusual traits with high achievers in Britain -
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 encouraged him when she realized he loved to sketch. She 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 professional 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 asked four artists to paint roundels of London hospitals. Gainsborough was one of the four. His view of Charterhouse was installed in the Foundling Hospital (where it remains today). Response was positive, and clients began to seek him out.
Gainsborough had already shown "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. 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 (below). The painting showed both what he could do and what he had yet to learn.
Mr and Mrs Andrews
Gainsborough had created a compelling design and an accurate topographical view of the Stour Valley, but he wasn't satisfied. His couple looked absurdly stiff, and what he wanted to capture was a good likeness. He considered a good likeness the principal beauty & intention of a portrait.
Inspired by music
To learn how to paint people well, 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. Putting in hours of work indoors, he began to master portrait painting, inspired in part by his love of music.
He had 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. His painting of his two daughters, created for his own pleasure when he was 29, is a perfect example of a visual song.
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.
Painting a heroine
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. To tackle his fears and the challenge, he made countless sketches, and almost died from exhaustion.
Gainsborough loved music, and he and his wife opened their house to musicians. Among the musicians who gathered was Ann Ford. Gainsborough shared Ann's love of music and admired her spirit - she was a heroine, really. One of his first full-length portraits was of Ann, who had shocked and thrilled society.
Ann Ford with her viola da gamba, 1760
Self-portrait, 1758-59, around the time he moved his family to Bath
Landscape of the heart
Gainsborough's great love was landscape painting. For years he painted the country and sent his paintings to London, where they were exhibited, commended, and year after year returned to him, unsold. "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. His failure resembled Constable's long struggle.
Who wouldn't take home one of his landscapes today?
Gainsborough was generous, religious, not an ideal husband but 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.
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.
A beautiful, troubled face
Gainsborough's society portraits can be subtly and disturbingly intuitive. Georgiana's huge, overshadowing black hat suggests her dependence on powerful men. 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.
Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher, 1785
Gainsborough loved the beauty and simplicity of country life while acutely aware that for many life in the country could be a grindingly hard place to live. His paintings of rural life are a testimony to his concern and his generosity to those in need. Constable later wrote that Gainsborough was the most benevolent and kind-hearted man.
Gainsborough never quit learning as an artist. In the 1770s, he painted the stunning Blue Boy, said to be a riposte to Reynolds' rule to use blue only as an accent in paintings.
Detail, Mrs FitzHerbert's bodice, 1784
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, gentle, almost on the edge of tears.
Until the very end of his life in 1788, Gainsborough donated money to the poor, followed politics, and sketched and painted. In this last decade, his aim for his paintings had changed -
He hoped most of all to elicit a response from the beholder.For more than two hundred years, he has.
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Hogarth's revival of the St Martin's Lane Academy in London provided a framework for Gainsborough's education.
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