Portrait and landscape painter, the most versatile English painter of the 18th century. Some of his early portraits show the sitters grouped in a landscape (“Mr. and Mrs. Andrews,” c. 1750). As he became famous and his sitters fashionable, he adopted a more formal manner that owed something to Anthony Van Dyck (“The Blue Boy,” c. 1770). His landscapes are of idyllic scenes. During his last years he also painted seascapes and idealized full-size pictures of rustics and country children.
Early life and Suffolk period
Gainsborough was the youngest son of John Gainsborough, a maker of woolen goods. When he was 13, he persuaded his father to send him to London to study on the strength of his promise at landscape. He worked as an assistant to Hubert Gravelot, a French painter and engraver and an important figure in London art circles at the time. From him Gainsborough learned something of the French Rococo idiom, which had a considerable influence on the development of his style. In 1746 in London he married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort. Soon afterward he returned to Suffolk and settled in Ipswich in 1752; his daughters Mary and Margaret were born in 1748 and 1752, respectively. In Ipswich Gainsborough met his first biographer, Philip Thicknesse. He early acquired some reputation as a portrait and landscape painter and made an adequate living.
Gainsborough declared that his first love was landscape and began to learn the language of this art from the Dutch 17th-century landscapists, who by 1740 were becoming popular with English collectors; his first landscapes were influenced by Jan Wynants. The earliest dated picture with a landscape background is a study of a bull terrier—“Bumper—A Bull Terrier” (1745; Sir Edward Bacon Collection, Raveningham, Norfolk), in which many of the details are taken straight from Wynants. But by 1748, when he painted “Cornard Wood,” Jacob van Ruisdael had become the predominant influence; although it is full of naturalistic detail, Gainsborough probably never painted directly from nature. “The Charterhouse,” one of his few topographical views, dates from the same year as “Cornard Wood” and in the subtle effect of light on various surfaces proclaims Dutchinfluence. In the background to “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews,” he anticipates the realism of the great English landscapist of the next century, John Constable, but for the most part fancy held sway. In many of the early landscapes the influence of Rococo design learned from Gravelot is evident, together with a feeling for the French pastoral tradition. “The Woodcutter Courting a Milkmaid” is an Anglicized version of a French theme, which recalls compositions by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Although Gainsborough preferred landscape, he knew he must paint portraits for economic reasons. The small heads painted in Suffolk, although sometimes rather stiff, are penetrating character studies delicately and freely pencilled, particularly the jaunty self-portrait in a cocked hat at Houghton. Gainsborough painted few full-length portraits in Suffolk. “Mr. William Woollaston,” although an ambitious composition, is intimate and informal. The “Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly,” composed in the last years at Ipswich, is, in its easy naturalism and sympathetic understanding, one of the best English portraits of children.
As well as straight portraits, he painted in Suffolk a number of delightful spontaneous groups of small figures in landscapes closely related to conversation pieces. “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews,” which has been described as the most English of English pictures, is set in a typical Suffolk landscape. “Lady and Gentleman in Landscape” is more Frenchified, with its vivacious Rococo rhythms, but “Heneage Lloyd and His Sister” is more stylized, the charming little figures being posed against a conventional background of steps and decorative urns.
To obtain a wider public, Gainsborough moved in 1759 to Bath, where his studio was soon thronged with fashionable sitters. He moved in musical and theatrical circles, and among his friends were members of the Linley family, whose portraits he painted. At Bath he also met the actor David Garrick, for whom he had a profound admiration and whom he painted on many occasions. His passion for music and the stage continued throughout his life. In the west country he visited many of the great houses and at Wilton fell under the spell of Anthony Van Dyck, the predominating influence in his later work. In spite of the demand for portraits, he continued to paint landscapes.
In 1761 he sent a portrait of Earl Nugent to the Society of Artists, and in the following year the first notice of his work appeared in the London press. Throughout the 1760s he exhibited regularly in London and in 1768 was elected a foundation member of the Royal Academy. Characteristically he never took much part in the deliberations.
After he moved to Bath, Gainsborough had less time for landscape and worked a good deal from memory, often drawing by candlelight from little model landscapes set up in his studio. About 1760 Peter Paul Rubens supplanted the Dutch painters as Gainsborough's chief love. This is particularly noticeable in “Peasants Returning from Market,” with its rich colour and beautiful creamy pastel shades. The influence of Rubens is also apparent in “The Harvest Wagon” in the fluency of the drawing and the scale of the great beech trees so different from the stubby oaks of Suffolk. The idyllic scene is a perfect blend of the real and the ideal. The group in the cart is based on Rubens' “Descentfrom the Cross” (1611–14) in Antwerp cathedral, which Gainsborough copied.
In Bath, Gainsborough had to satisfy a more sophisticated clientele and adopted a more formal and elegant portrait style based largely on a study of Van Dyck at Wilton, where he made a free copy of Van Dyck's painting of the Pembroke family. By 1769, when he painted “Isabella Countess of Sefton,” it is easy to see the refining influence of Van Dyck in the dignified simplicity of the design and the subtle mutedcolouring. One of Gainsborough's most famous pictures, “The Blue Boy,” was probably painted in 1770. In painting this subject in Van Dyck dress, he was following an 18th-century fashion in painting, as well as doing homage to his hero. The influence of Van Dyck is most clearly seen in the more official portraits. “John, 4th Duke of Argyll” in his splendid robes is composed in the grand manner, and “Augustus John, Third Earl of Bristol” rivals Reynolds' portraits of the kind. Gainsborough preferred to paint his friends rather than public figures, and a group of portraits of the 1760s—Uvedale Price, Sir William St. Quinton, and Thomas Coward, all oldish men of strong character—illustrate Gainsborough's sense of humour and his individual approach to sympathetic sitters.
In 1774 he moved to London and settled in part of Schomberg House in Pall Mall. Fairly soon he began to be noticed by the royal family and partly because of his informality and Tory politics was preferred by George III above the official court painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1781 he was commissioned to paint the King and Queen.
Gainsborough continued his landscape work. “The Watering Place” was described by Horace Walpole, the English man of letters, as in the style of Rubens, but it also has much of the classic calm of Claude Lorrain, whose etchings Gainsborough owned. In 1783 he made an expedition to the Lake District to see for himself the “wild” scenery extolled by the devotees of the picturesque. On his return he painted a number of mountain scenes that have analogies with the work of Gaspard Dughet, whose works were widely distributed in English country houses. Some sea pieces dating from the 1780s show a new kind of realism, harking back to the Dutch seascape tradition. During his last years Gainsborough was haunted by his nostalgia for Arcadia in the English countryside and painted a series of pictures of peasant life more ideal than real, for example, “The Cottage Door.” But one of the latest landscapes, “The Market Cart,” is less idealized and more true to nature and looks forward to Constable in its treatment of the light breaking through the massive foliage.
Gainsborough was the only important English portrait painter to devote much time to landscape drawing. He composed a great many drawings in a variety of mediums including chalk, pen and wash, and watercolour, some of them varnished. He was always eager to find new papers and new techniques. He produced a magic lantern to give striking lighting effects; the box is still in the Victoria and Albert Museum, together with some of the slides. In addition Gainsborough made a series of soft-ground etchings and aquatints. He never sold his drawings and, although many of them are closely related to pictures, they are not studies in the ordinary sense but works of art in their own right.
Gainsborough was not methodical in keeping sitter books, and comparatively few of the portraits in the early years in London are dated. In 1777 he exhibited at the Royal Academy the well-known “Mrs. Graham,” “C.F. Abel,” “William Henry, Duke of Gloucester,” and “Maria, Duchess of Gloucester,” all deliberately glamorous and painted in richly heightened colour. “Queen Charlotte” is more restrained; the painting of the flounced white dress decorated with ribbons and laces makes her look every inch a queen. It is significant that Gainsborough, unlike most of his contemporaries, did not generally use drapery painters. In 1784 he quarrelled with the Academy because they insisted on hanging the “Three Eldest Princesses” at the normal height from the floor, which Gainsborough maintained was too high to appreciate his lightness of touch and delicate pencilling. In protest he withdrew the pictures he had intended for the exhibition and never showed again at the Academy.
In some of Gainsborough's later portraits of women, he dispensed with precise finish, and, without sacrificing the likeness, he concentrated on the general effect. “Mrs. Sheridan” melts into the landscape, while “Lady Bate Dudley,” a symphony in blue and green, is an insubstantial form, almost an abstract. “Mrs. Siddons,” on the other hand, shows that Gainsborough could still paint a splendid objective study. Few of the later male portraits are of a pronounced character, but exceptions are two particularly good pictures of musicians, “Johann Christian Fischer” and the unfinished “Lord Abingdon” (private collection).
A new venture in 1783 was “The Mall in St. James' Park,” a park scene described by Horace Walpole as “all a flutter like alady's fan.” “The Morning Walk,” with romanticized figures strolling in a landscape, is painted in the same spirit (see photograph). The “fancy pictures” painted in the 1780s gave Gainsborough particular pleasure. They are full-sized, idealized portraits of country children and peasants painted from models—for example, “The Cottage Girl with a Bowl of Milk.” The idea appeared in immature form in the little rustic Suffolk figures, and he may have been fired to exploit it further by seeing the 17th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Murillo's “St. John,” which he copied.
He died in 1788 and was buried in Kew churchyard.
Of all the 18th-century English painters, Thomas Gainsborough was the most inventive and original, always prepared to experiment with new ideas and techniques, and yet he complained of his contemporary Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Damn him, how various he is.” Gainsborough alone among the great portrait painters of the era also devoted serious attention to landscapes. Unlike Reynolds, he was no great believer in an academic tradition and laughed at the fashion for history painting; an instinctive painter, he delighted in the poetry of paint. In his racy letters Gainsborough shows a warm-hearted and generous character and an independent mind. His comments on his own work and methods, as well as on some of the old masters, are very revealing and throw considerable light on contemporary views of art.