Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome art historian and Gainsborough House director Mark Bills to talk to us about the life and art of Sudbury old boy Thomas Gainsborough. The subject was clearly dear to Mark's heart, whilst the 35 + audience was spellbound by his incredibly detailed and comprehensive account and the depth of his knowledge of Gainsborough's life's work.
Mark began by telling us that Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 in Sudbury, in the house now known as Gainsborough's House, where he passed his early years before the bright lights of London beckoned. According to Mark, while you could admire artistic rivals such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough was an artist you could love; this was possibly because he was rooted in his native land so that his work was natural and intuitive. Like John Constable, a later admirer, his landscapes were snapshots of their time.
Gainsborough was most at home with country scenes; the now iconic painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews showing the Stour valley from their Auberies estate overlooking Sudbury is his best known. He made his money and contemporary fame from the lucrative business of painting portraits for wealthy clients, but ultimately he grew tired of this, preferring the natural world; a biographer wrote after his death “nature was his teacher and the woods of Suffolk his academy”.
Mark told us that Gainsborough had a sharp wit, hated pretentiousness and humbug, and that many of his letters survived, giving an idea of the man he was. As an example, he told us of a court case where Gainsborough was an expert witness, concerning whether a painting attributed to the French artist Poussin was authentic. The painting had sold for £500 (a very considerable sum then) but Gainsborough said it was a fake “for which he would not give 5 shillings”. An attorney perhaps unwisely questioned this judgment, asking how Gainsborough could tell, to which the reply came back “the eye of a painter is equal to the tongue of a lawyer.”
Mark then took us on a journey through Gainsborough's life, showing many of the perhaps 900 paintings Gainsborough completed, to demonstrate his artistic style, endeavour and genius.
Early Life (1727 - 1740)
Thomas was the fifth son of cloth merchant John Gainsborough, who in 1722 bought “a most excellent Brickt Mansion” in Sudbury, on a plot that had been inhabited since medieval times. They knew both good times and bad as John's economic fortunes fluctuated, ultimately realised when John went bankrupt in 1733. The property was bought for £500 in 1735 (a bargain as this is just about £110,000 in today's money) by his nephew, also John Gainsborough; this allowed the family to remain and thus alleviated their financial worries. Thomas's father became the Sudbury postmaster until his death in October 1748.
Apprenticeship (1740 - 1749)
When still a boy Gainsborough impressed his father with his drawing and painting skills, painting heads and small landscapes by the age of ten, including a miniature self-portrait. He was allowed to leave home in 1740 to study art in London, where he was apprenticed to a London silversmith and taught by Hubert Gravelot, a French engraver and book illustrator. He became associated with William Hogarth (the famous painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic and editorial cartoonist) and his school, and contributed to the decoration of the Foundling Hospital, now the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children. According to Mark, Thomas quickly became part of the London art scene.
By 1745 Gainsborough had established his own studio in London. In 1746 he married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled an annual annuity of £200 on them. Mark told us this took place in a Mayfair chapel presided over by an excommunicated vicar living in the local gaol, something quite legal until the later marriage acts came to pass.
Sudbury (1749 - 1752)
At this time Gainsborough's work, which mostly consisting of landscape paintings, was not selling well and he returned to Sudbury in 1748-1749 to concentrate on painting portraits. His now famous Mr and Mrs Andrews painting cleverly places the portraits within the landscape.
In 1752, he and his family, now including two daughters, moved to Ipswich; commissions for personal portraits increased, but his clientele included mainly local merchants and squires and he had to borrow against his wife's annuity.
Bath (1759 - 1779)
In 1759 Gainsborough moved with his family to Bath, where he studied portraits by van Dyck; this was because he was outgrowing the East Anglian market for portraits and he was at last able to attract a fashionable clientele. He was soon a busy man juggling commissions and having to come up with a good line in excuses for delays in completing them (he was a great letter writer):
If I disappoint you . . . I'll give you leave to boil me down for painters' drying oil, and shiver my bones into pencil sticks . . . I wish you would recollect that painting and punctuality mix like oil and vinegar, and that genius and regularity are utter enemies, and must be to the end of time. I would not insinuate that I am a genius any further than as I resemble one in your opinion, who think I have no such thing as punctuality about me. In short Sir, I throw myself at your feet and thank God most sincerely that I am not any nearer to them, for surely you could not help kicking me.
In 1761, he began to send work to the Society of Arts exhibition in London (now the Royal Society of Arts), and around this time wrote that:
I am sick of portraits and wish very much to take up my viol da gamba (literally a leg viola) and walk off to some sweet village where I can paint landskips (landscapes) and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease. But these fine ladies (his daughters) and their tea drinkings, dancings, husband huntings and such will fob me out of the last ten years
From 1769 he submitted works to the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions, selecting portraits of well-known or notorious clients to attract attention. This helped him acquire a national reputation and he was invited to become a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1769, but he later quarrelled with them over the hanging of his pictures and did not exhibit there again until 1777
In 1774, Gainsborough and his family moved to London, to Schomberg House in Pall Mall, where a commemorative blue plaque was placed in 1951; this was in order to gain royal patronage. In 1777 he again exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy, including portraits of contemporary celebrities such as the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland. Exhibitions of his work continued for the next six years, but in 1784 he again quarrelled over the same subject and never again exhibited at the Academy, instead organising a series of annual exhibitions in his studio at Schomberg House.
During the 1770s and 1780s Gainsborough developed a type of portrait where he integrated sitters into the landscape. A splendid example of this is his portrait of Frances Browne (Mrs John Douglas). This portrait was included in his first private exhibition at Schomberg House in 1784.
In 1780, he painted the portraits of King George III and his queen, afterwards receiving many royal commissions. In 1784, royal painter Allan Ramsay died and the King was obliged to give the job to Gainsborough's rival and Academy president, Joshua Reynolds. Gainsborough remained the Royal Family's favourite painter, however, eventually painting the entire family.
Mark told us that whilst Gainsborough sketched from nature, his landscapes were constructs of his imagination. Welsh landscape painter Richard Wilson described his trees and foliage as ‘fried parsley', something more accurate than he knew because Gainsborough built up model scenes (as visual aids) from bits of cork, coal, moss, mirror, lichen and sand, with broccoli standing in for the wooded background.
We were also told that Gainsborough used a Claude Glass (or black mirror) to compose his landscapes; a small mirror, slightly convex in shape, with its surface tinted a dark colour. Such mirrors abstracted the subject reflected in them from the surroundings, reducing and simplifying colour and tonal range of scenes to give a painterly quality. Gainsborough then painted the image as viewed in the mirror.
In the 1780s Gainsborough painted a series of landscapes in oils on glass, which were viewed in a specially constructed 'showbox', which contained a painted glass transparency set before a silk diffusing screen originally lit by three candles. The image is viewed through the adjustable lens at the front. The box opens at the top and back, contains slots for storing transparencies and now resides in the Victoria & Albert museum.
Mark then showed us ambitious plans for a significant expansion of Gainsborough's House, along Weavers Lane, which it is hoped will at last provide space where Thomas Gainsborough‘s work can be properly celebrated.
This concluded Mark's excellent and incredible talk, which left the audience just slightly breathless - truly it was something wonderful.
Our next event will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on 14th June, when Joy Bounds, a local writer on women's issues and history, will tell us all about the life and times of Joan of Arc - Maid of Orleans and a true French Heroine - its going to be great.
Andy Sheppard 19th May 2017