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Thomas Gainsborough

British, 1727 - 1788

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Born in 1727, the first year of George II’s reign, in Sudbury, a village in the flat, empty county of Suffolk, Thomas Gainsborough was the fifth son of a successful wool merchant and shroud manufacturer. His (sometime) friend and first biographer Philip Thicknesse (1719-1792) described Gainsborough's country childhood: "During his Boy-hood, though he had no Idea of becoming a Painter then, yet there was not a Picturesque clump of Trees,...nor hedge row, stone, or post, at the corner of the Lanes, for some miles round about the place of his nativity, that he had not so perfectly in his mind’s eye, that had he known he could use a pencil, he could have perfectly delineated.''1

Sent to London at the age of thirteen to lodge at the house of a silversmith, Gainsborough became the pupil or assistant of the French engraver Hubert François Bourguignon, known as Gravelot (1699-1773), who worked in England from 1732 to 1755. As a student of François Boucher (1703-1770), teaching draftsmanship at the St. Martin's Lane Academy, Gravelot was, in part, responsible for the dissemination of the French rococo style in England. Among the lively group of artists who made up the academy in St. Martin's Lane, Gainsborough is particularly associated with the painter of slightly wooden but charming conversation pieces Francis Hayman (1708-1776), although there is no evidence that as a boy he ever actually became Hayman's pupil. By the time Gainsborough set up on his own in a studio in Hatton Garden, Holborn, around 1746, he had picked up from the clique at St. Martin's Lane a bias toward informality, wit, and naturalism in painting, as against the prevailing taste for the staid and aristocratic Palladianism of Lord Burlington and his followers.2

To support himself, Gainsborough copied and repaired Dutch landscapes, which, with the rise of a taste for collecting among the middle classes, began in the 1740s to be sold in great numbers both in auction houses and through dealers.3 We might characterize Gainsborough's first style, which he developed away from London on his return to Sudbury in 1748, as a reworking of Ruisdael (1628/9-1682) and Wynants (c. 1625-1684) in the silvery colors and linear rhythms of the French rococo. Sometimes naturalism and artifice are even developed separately within the same picture, as in his famous Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1748, 27 1/2 x 46 3/4", London, National Gallery), where a realistic, nearly topographical landscape is set off by, the dainty, silly, Haymanesque dolls whose portraits form the picture's subject.

In 1752, with a wife (Margaret Burr, d. 1798), whom he had married in 1746, and two small daughters to support, Gainsborough moved to Ipswich, a seaport ten miles from Sudbury, where a larger population meant more portrait commissions. There he lived for seven years, until October 1759, when he moved again to trawl the yet more abundant waters of Bath.

But long before the move to Bath, he began to alter and develop his style to meet the demands of more sophisticated clients. In landscape this meant turning away from the relative realism of the Sudbury period toward a more fanciful, artificial vision of nature. As John Hayes has pointed out, this may have been a response to the tremendous popularity at this period of Francesco Zuccarelli's (1702-1788) decorative landscape concoctions, on which the provincial artist may have wanted to capitalize.4 In his portraits Gainsborough began in the 1750s to abandon the small-scale, informal, and slightly old-fashioned conversation piece to experiment with full-length formal portraiture to the scale of life, as, for example, in his Mrs. Philip Thicknesse of 1760 (77 1/2 x 53", Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum). The sitter's body is obviously drawn from a wooden doll or lay-figure; but the portrait is carried by the brilliant handling of paint in every inch of her dress. It might have been of this picture as well as of any other that Reynolds (1723-1792) was thinking when in his eulogy to Gainsborough in his Fourteenth Discourse he spoke of "all those odd scratches and marks, which, on a close examination, are so observable in Gainsborough's pictures, and which even to experienced painters appear rather the effect of accident than design; this chaos, this uncouth and shapeless appearance, by a kind of magick, at a certain distance assumes form, and all the parts seem to drop into their proper places."5

Behind these changes in style lay a sure sense of what the market required and how the artist could provide it. Mrs. Thicknesse's husband wrote that of all the men he knew, Gainsborough "possessed least of that worldly knowledge, to enable him to make his own way into the notice of the GREAT WORLD";6 but the fact remains that he did make his way in that world, and with tremendous success, too. For he was actually very willing to adapt himself to the demands of his patrons, and, unlike Reynolds, fully accepted the reality of what the British public was willing to hang on their walls. This he explained to William Jackson of Exeter (1730-1803), the organist of Exeter Cathedral and a friend: “[In my profession] a Man may do great things and starve in a Garret if he does not conquer his Passions and conform to the Common Eye in chusing that branch which they will encourage & pay for."7

The Bath period, from 1759 until his move to London late in 1774, although in some ways one in which Gainsborough made professional compromises in order to attract clients, is nonetheless the time when he painted his most appealing portraits and some of his most ravishing landscapes. His exposure to the Rubenses and Van Dycks in West Countryhouses (Bowood, Wilton, Longleat) and the romantic, rolling countryside around Bath are partly responsible for an ever more apparent attempt on his part to form his own grand manner in emulation of the classical masters of the seventeenth century, in such pictures as The Harvest Wagon (1767, 47 1/2 x 57", Birmingham, Barber Institute of fine Arts) and The Blue Boy (1770, 70 x 48", San Marino, California, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery).8 Then, too, public competition with Reynolds, in the form of a series of full-length portraits sent to the Society of Artists exhibition every year from 1761 to 1768, kept him aware of developments in the capital in the decade in which Reynolds was virtually inventing the English grand manner. Because he exhibited annually in London and was known to the beau monde who flocked to Bath, Gainsborough became in these years one of the best-known artists in England. When the Royal Academy was established in 1768, he was among the original forty founding members.

We know something about the way Gainsborough worked from two descriptions: one from the miniature-painter Ozias Humphry (1742-1810), who lived with Gainsborough's close friends the Linleys in Bath from 1760 to 1764; the other from his daughter Margaret. According to Humphry "[His portraits]...as well as his landscapes, were frequently wrought by candlelight, and generally with great force and likeness. But his painting room--even by day a kind of darkened twilight--had scarcely any light, and I have seen him, whilst his subjects have been sitting to him, when neither they nor the pictures were scarcely discernible."9

He used fine-woven canvas, primed with light gray or yellow paint so that he started a portrait on a smooth surface. By working with ''paint so thin and liquid that his palette ran over unless he kept it on the level," as one of his daughters recalled,10 he allowed the gray or yellow ground to be seen through his surface paints, resulting, as in his Mary, Countess Howe (c. 1763-64, 96 x 60", Kenwood, The Iveagh Bequest), in an effect of couleur changeant.

Gainsborough painted with brushes up to several feet long, allowing him to control the brushstrokes with great delicacy and precision. Particularly in the 1770s, he seems to have attempted to make his oil paints look like the soft, dry strokes of pastels.11 He also made certain that his pictures were properly framed, and, when he could, saw that they were hung to their best advantage. Thus he offered this advice to David Garrick in 1772: "If you let your Portrait hang up so high, only to consult your Room...it never can look without a hardness of Countenance and the Painting flat, it was calculated for breast high and will never have its Effect or likeness otherwise."12

The rule at the Royal Academy that full-length canvases should be hung above the line (which in the eighteenth century was above the top of the doorways13) meant that Gainsborough's delicate colors and elaborate scumbles (the rubbing of a light and opaque color over a darker one) and glazes (laying a darker color over a lighter) were completely lost to the public; lost, that is, unless he chose to compete with other artists by jazzing up his portraits for the exhibition, then toning them down later. Gainsborough, who preferred in art "the mild Evening gleam and the quiet middle time” to the "Glare and Noise" of exhibition portraits14 put up with a number of Royal Academy exhibitions, but did not exhibit from 1773 to 1776. He resumed exhibiting in 1777 but ceased altogether after a row with the authorities in the spring of 1784 over the hanging of his portrait group The Three Eldest Princesses (originally 100 x 70 1/2'', Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). To the hanging committee he wrote: ''[Mr. Gainsborough] has painted the Picture of the Princesses, in so tender a light, that notwithstanding he approves...of the established Line for strong Effects, he cannot possibly consent to have it placed higher than five feet & a half, because the likenesses & Work of the Picture will not be seen any higher."15

Still, the committee thwarted him; Gainsborough resigned and for the rest of his life he exhibited in his own studio at Schomberg House, Pall Mall. But if he jumped, it was only after carefully looking around him. After an economically thin period during his last year in Bath and first few years in London (1774-76), he received his first royal commission in 1777. Thereafter he became the court painter in fact although not in title, because Reynolds was Principal Portrait Painter to the king. He had invested in government securities in the 1770s, and his daughters were by then grown, so he was freer after 1777 to consult his own preferences in art and in life.

From the later 1770s Gainsborough began a new period in his career, characterized by experiments not so much in technique as in technology and subject matter. The herald of the change was his work with Benjamin West (1738-1820) and Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727-1785) on the decoration of Johann Christian Bach's and Karl Friedrich Abel's concert room, which opened on February 1, 1775.16 Gainsborough's contribution was a Comic Muse painted on some kind of transparent material, possibly glass, and lit from behind to illuminate the room. Then, when Philipp de Loutherbourg (1740-1812), the artist and stage designer for Garrick at Drury Lane, unveiled his celebrated Eidophusikon in 1781, an exhibition of moving pictures painted on transparent material and lit from behind, Gainsborough attended performances every evening. In the 1780s he built his own Exhibition Box, a kind of slide viewer with a place for candles and a slot in which to place one of a set of landscapes the artist painted on squares of glass.17

Viewing his works thematically, we find Gainsborough's only sea pieces in the 1780s (the most successful seascapes before Turner's {1775-1851} in the late 1790s); the first attempt to paint picturesque scenery in his mountain and lakeland landscapes of 1783 (which, in turn, were influential in creating a taste for the picturesque in the next decades); and his only mythological painting (Diana and Actaeon, 1784-85, 621 1/4, x 74", Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). In the early 1780s he painted his first "fancy pictures," on which much of his reputation in the nineteenth century was based.18 These were sentimentalized portraits of rustics or beggar children in a landscape setting, painted on the scale of life under the influence of Murillo’s famous The Good Shepherd, a painting that, as Ellis Waterhouse has shown, Gainsborough had copied in 1780.19 Fancy pictures were something quite new--not only in English painting but in the whole history of art. Neither portraiture, nor genre, nor history, nor religious paintings, and yet a combination of all four, these boys and girls, housemaids and woodsmen, were painted life sized and with the surface brilliance usually reserved for portraits of duchesses, which moved the viewer by appealing to his emotions--perhaps the first nonreligious and apolitical pictures to attempt this.

In the last decade of his life Gainsborough painted a series of portraits that are among the handful of overwhelming masterpieces in the history of art, comparable to the greatest portraits of Titian or Van Dyck. In The Morning Walk (1785, 93 x 70 1/2", London, National Gallery), a dense, moody, fleeting vision of a young couple (Mr. and Mrs. William Hallet) walking in a park, all the colors and textures of nature seem to merge and yet to remain separate, as though Gainsborough saw and weighed but valued equally light and air, trees and plants, animals, youth, and physical beauty.

Part of this near-mystical vision of life as embodied in the late paintings can be glimpsed throughout his career and explained by his devotion to his art. Sir Joshua Reynolds, searching for words to describe Gainsborough's genius, was reduced to the simple observation that it was "the love which he had to his art; to which, indeed, his whole mind appears to have been devoted...[for] his regret at losing life, was principally the regret of leaving his art.''20

Gainsborough employed only one studio assistant, his nephew Gainsborough Dupont (1754-1797), whom he apprenticed at seventeen, in 1772. He never employed a drapery painter but finished every part of the canvas himself. That he did so underlines the difference between his attitude toward his art and Reynolds's. To Sir Joshua, the greatest journalist in the history of art, a portrait was a representation of a sitter's face, his station in life, and his politics, though not necessarily in that order. The idea, the theory, of the picture could in many cases be more important than what was actually on the canvas--so the hand that finished the secondary parts was not important. But for Gainsborough, Beauty was paramount, and he approached his canvas first as a poet and then as a craftsman, making of a blank canvas an object of supreme beauty. For Gainsborough, a lover of music and an amateur musician, it was as unthinkable that a lace, a bow, a set of pearls should be finished by another painter as it would be to hire another cellist to play his part in a string quartet.

Gainsborough died of cancer on August 2, 1788, aged sixty-two. His recent biographer John Hayes has called him "one of the most loveable persons who ever lived"; and no one who has looked thoughtfully at his pictures or read his letters will disagree. Indeed, in an essay of this length one can only recommend to the reader those letters, among the most delightful literary productions of the eighteenth century.

Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 106-110.

1. Philip Thicknesse. A Sketch of the Life and Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, Esq. London, 1788, pp. 5-6.
2. Mark Girouard. ''Coffee at Slaughter's, English Art and the Rococo-I." Country Life, January 13, 1966, pp. 58-61.
3. John Hayes. "British Patrons and Landscape Painting: 2. Eighteenth-Century Collecting." Apollo, n.s., vol. 83 (March 1966), pp. 188-97, esp. p. 190.
4. Nottingham, University Art Gallery. Landscapes by Thomas Gainsborough, 1962 (by John Haves), introduction.
5. Robert R. Wark, ed. Sir Joshua Reynolds: Discourses on Art. San Marino, California, 1959, pp. 257-58.
6. Philip Thicknesse. A Sketch of the Life and Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, Esq. London, 1788, p. 32.
7. Mary Woodall, ed. The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough. Rev. ed. Bradford, 1963, no. 58, pp. 117-19.
8. John Hayes. "Gainsborough and Rubens." Apollo, n.s., vol. 78 (August 1963), pp. 89-97.
9. Humphry's unpublished autobiographical memoir (Royal Academy, London), quoted by William T. Whitley. Thomas Gainsborough. London and New York, 1915, p. 391.
10. Whitley, 1915, p. 247.
11. Possibly to attract the customers who might otherwise patronize Francis Cotes (1726-1770) and Jean Étienne Liotard (1702-1789), who enjoyed considerable popularity working in pastel.
12. Woodall, ed., 1963, no. 34, pp. 75-77.
13. Whitley, 1915, p. 216.
14. Gainsborough to David Garrick, 1772, in Woodall, ed., 1963, no. 34, pp. 75-77.
15. Woodall, ed., 1963, no. 3, p. 29.
16. Whitley, 1915, p. 114.
17. Jonathan Mayne, "Thomas Gainsborough's Exhibition Box," Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1965), pp. 17-24; John Hayes. The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough: A Critical Text and Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. London and Ithaca, New York, 1982, vol.1, pp. 140-41, figs. 171-72.
18. Ellis K. Waterhouse, "Gainsborough's ‘Fancy Pictures,'" The Burlington Magazine, vol. 88, no. 519 (June 1946), pp. 134-41.
19. Ellis K. Waterhouse. Gainsborough. London, 1958, p. 125. Gainsborough had painted after a copy of Murillo (1617/8-1682) by Jean Grimou (1680-1740), not The Good Shephard in the Lane Collection or the Prado.
20. Wark, ed., 1959, pp. 250, 252 (Fourteenth Discourse).

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