Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
A Shepherd and His Flock
Pen, ink and watercolour.
Although famous and popular in his own time as a portrait painter, Gainsborough produced landscapes throughout his career. However, he sold very few, using them instead to decorate his own home.
Gainsborough liked to experiment and there are accounts of him producing miniature models of landscapes using objects including broccoli, pebbles and glass, which he would then sketch from. There are five drawing and watercolours by Gainsborough in Leeds Art Gallery's collection.
Notes from: HumanitiesWeb
Thomas Gainsborough was born at Sudbury in Suffolk, on 14 May, 1727. He was the youngest of nine children born to John and Susannah Gainsborough. John was a successful clothier and Susannah did some painting, perhaps encouraging her son's natural talent. It was said that Gainsborough was a pleasant boy with excellent manners; one who was amiable, bright, clever, light-hearted, and self-confident. He spent his most of his boyhood roaming the countryside, sketching the trees and cottages in the neighbourhood of Sudbury, even forging notes from his parents in order to skip school to spend more time in the forest. When he did attend school, young Thomas was a shrewd but rather lacklustre student. He began his art career drawing pictures of his classmates in return for their doing his homework exercises. It was the Suffolk countryside that played a significant role in shaping his character and Gainsborough himself credited Suffolk with making him an artist.
His artistic ability was quickly recognised by his father, who arranged for him to travel to London to study painting and engraving at the age of 13. Young Thomas apprenticed under a French silver engraver, Hubert Gravelot. Gravelot was a first class engraver, draughtsman and book illustrator who had studied under Jean Antoine Watteau. Gravelot expanded the young painter's knowledge and experience by introducing him to the French concepts of art at a time when the British art scene was dominated by the Italian theory. Gravelot also occasionally employed Gainsborough as an assistant, working on engravings and the borders of illustrations. Gravelot served as an excellent introduction to many other leading artists, including William Hogarth - who invited Gainsborough to contribute a painting for public exhibition to be hung on the walls of the new Foundling Hospital. To fulfil this request, Gainsborough produced his first well-known work, The Charterhouse.
It was probably also through Gravelot that Gainsborough met Francis Hayman, a painter of historical events. Gainsborough hired himself out to Hayman (who was then working on his Vauxhall decorations), to repair and restore old paintings. Here Gainsborough became familiar with the Flemish style of painting, which was then very popular with art dealers. Many of the small portrait-groups, with the figures set in a realistic landscape, which Gainsborough painted at the beginning of his career are markedly dependent on Hayman and this time spent working with and reworking the masters.
In 1746, at the age of 19, Thomas Gainsborough met and married Miss Margaret Burr, a strikingly beautiful young girl (believed to have been the illegitimate daughter of the wealthy Duke of Beaufort). This was a most auspicious match for the young artist, for with his wife came a dowry in the form of a yearly annuity of two hundred pounds - and this at a time when a skilled artisan usually earned less then fifty pounds a year! Consequently, Gainsborough gained an enviable degree of independence that was to have a marked effect on his work. He could afford to experiment, to improvise, and if the portrait client was too demanding, to turn down commissions.
Realising that he was unable to compete with established London artists, Gainsborough took his wife and moved to Sudbury and then to Ipswich in 1752. Although mainly interested in painting landscapes, Gainsborough began to undertake commissions for portraits in order to support his family, which had now grown to include two daughters. His patrons were mainly the merchants of the town and the neighbouring squires, and his work at this time consisted mainly of heads and half-length portraits. During this period he also painted some small portrait groups in landscape settings, 'conversation pieces', which distantly echo Watteau - another sign, perhaps, of the French influence of Gravelot. Posing his models in the open countryside enabled him to indulge his taste for landscape - with harmonies in grey and golden-yellow, these canvases are sincere and simple, they are true to nature in abstract, and are considered the most lyrical of all English conversation pieces. Had he persevered in this direction, he might well have developed into a far greater painter than the Gainsborough we know.
In 1759 Gainsborough allowed himself to be persuaded by Philip Thicknesse, a dilettante who had taken a fancy to him, into leaving his simple life at Ipswich and moving to Bath in order to find more sitters. Bath was a fashionable spa and health-resort, and a centre of fashion and culture. As such, it was ideal for a young artist with a growing reputation. Once in Bath, Gainsborough hung examples of his works in the Pump Room, and very soon his personal charm and talent led the fashionable world to flock to his studio - here he received both recognition and commissions enough to satisfy any artist. Undertaking a colossal amount of work, Gainsborough sent a constant string of paintings to the Society of Artists in London for exhibition. He remained the most sought-after painter there until his move to London in 1774. His Bath period is characterised by a loss of the ingenuous quality of his early work, which gave way to a sense of fashionable elegance, often displayed in full-length portraits, life-size, set against an imaginary landscape background. His portraits of this time are characterised by the noble and refined grace of the figures, by poetic charm, and by cool and fresh colours, chiefly greens and blues, thinly applied. The influence of van Dyck, whom he now had opportunities to study, is very apparent in such pictures as the Blue Boy and a handful of others in which he even dressed the sitters in van Dyck costume. He continued to paint landscapes but they became more Arcadian in quality, obviously composed rather than observed. There can be no doubt that his art was adversely affected by his desire to please his frivolous, pleasure-seeking customers.
He began to exhibit in London (at the Society of Artists) in 1761. When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, Gainsborough's reputation was such that he was elected one of the original members. His relations with the Royal Academy were always uncertain though, and marred by disputes with the Hanging Committee. Gainsborough was incredibly particular as to the way his paintings were to be hung, and was furious when his painting of Lady Horatia Waldegrave, in 1773, was hung where it would to be obscured by the skirts of women crowding around to look at the higher pictures. He did not exhibit again until 1777. In 1784 he completely lost his temper when the Council rejected his request to hang his portrait The Three Eldest Princesses at his required height, which had been planned for a specific location and had been painted with the viewer's eye level in mind. These incidents led to Gainsborough withdrawing of all of his paintings from the Exhibition, and provoked a great deal of public debate and articles from the press. This was the last time that Gainsborough exhibited at the Royal Academy, preferring from then on to hold private exhibitions at his home, Schomberg House, at Pall Mall.
All his professional life Gainsborough had had a friendly artistic rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy. His move to London in 1774 may partially have been in order to match himself against Reynolds, and most people relished the rivalry. Gainsborough's whole work and career were the exact opposite to everything which Reynolds, in his early Discourses, had preached to the young students of the Royal Academy. Although he was a highly cultured and intelligent man who loved plays and music and was an entertaining letter-writer, Gainsborough had no interest in literary or historical themes. Unlike Reynolds, Gainsborough painted for the love of art, rather than for political, social, or economic purposes. In other ways, too, Gainsborough was the antithesis of Reynolds - whereas Reynolds was sober-minded and the complete professional, Gainsborough (although his output was prodigious) was much more easy-going and often overdue with his commissions. The rivalry was rendered all the more piquant by the fact that Reynolds was knighted and the head of the King's own academy - yet Gainsborough was the favourite painter of the British aristocracy, becoming wealthy through commissions for their portraits. In fact, in 1774 Gainsborough painted, by royal invitation, portraits of King George III and the queen consort, Charlotte Sophia. When Ramsay, painter to the king, died in 1784, Reynolds succeeded to the title but Gainsborough kept the favour.
From about 1780, Gainsborough turned from portraiture to pictorial compositions, in the style of Murillo. He called these paintings, ones of a poetic quality that was an extension of his interest in landscape, his "fancy pictures". These later landscapes are much influenced by Rubens and are among the most beautiful ever painted in England. While one is sometimes led to wonder what he might have achieved had he been a recipient of formal studio training, the natural lot of Tiepolo or Fragonard for example, it may be that the most valuable and essential quality of Gainsborough's painting is owed to that tinge of amateurishness which comes from the lack of a strong Academic tradition. It is the freshness of Gainsborough's perception of form, of colour, of character, and of the rhythms of landscape that makes his pictures such a delight. In natural gifts, in artistic intuition, and in sustained lyrical feeling it might be said that Gainsborough surpassed any other British painter.
Gainsborough died on 2 August 1788, felled by cancer. He left a legacy of more than 500 paintings and a new respect for the British landscape. Gainsborough's lifelong rival, Reynolds, paid him posthumous tribute in his Fourteenth Discourse, saying "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." The house Thomas Gainsborough was born in still stands, and is now a museum dedicated to the work of the town's most famous citizen.
Article By: Gifford, Katya
First Published: 2007.
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