by Roderick Conway Morris

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At Home with the Gainsboroughs

By Roderick Conway Morris
SUDBURY 4 January 2019
National Gallery, London
The Artist with Wife, Margaret, and Elder Daughter, Mary,
by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1748



'Nature was his teacher, and the Woods of Suffolk his Academy,' in the words of an obituary that appeared shortly after Thomas Gainsborough's death in August 1788.

Gainsborough was born in 1727, into a large family that had fallen on hard times, in a house just off the market square in Sudbury. From his earliest days he loved the surrounding water meadows and woods, and manifested precocious talents in sketching them. By thirteen he had managed to get to London to start training as an artist and by sixteen he had his own studio. And although he became one of the most renowned portrait painters of the age, his lifelong passion remained landscape.

The artist is now the subject of two charming and enlightening exhibitions that open the doors as never before on his beginnings and domestic life: 'Early Gainsborough: From the obscurity of a Country Town', at Gainsborough's House in Sudbury; and 'Gainsborough's Family Album' at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Recent research presented at the Sudbury show reveals that Thomas might never have become a professional artist but for a shocking event. In 1738 his uncle was pursuing a creditor who threatened to kill him if he did not desist. Thomas's uncle, and his son, were subsequently murdered, as a result of which the aspiring artist received a legacy of £40, enabling him quite unexpectedly to escape his provincial backwater and advance his artistic education.

At that time, for most artists, portrait painting offered just about the only possibility of a regular income, but in order to command reasonable fees the portraitist needed to have the trappings of a gentleman that would allow him to move in the upper echelons of society. By a second stroke of luck, Gainsborough met, courted, impregnated and hastily married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the 3rd Duke of Beaufort. Her allowance of £200 a year and her social connections were decisive in launching him on an ever-more successful career as the family moved to Ipswich, to ultra-fashionable Bath and then back to London.

The National Portrait Gallery show opens with 'The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary', painted when Gainsborough was no more than twenty, but already demonstrating the enchanting blend of portraiture and landscape that characterized his subsequent works. This was perhaps the first of a series of some 50 family pictures Gainsborough did during his life, which were for domestic consumption only and not shown publicly until long after his death.

Gainsborough was the first major artist to record his own immediate and extended family with such regularity but these images are now widely scattered. The NPG's show brings them together again for the first time since they gradually accrued in the artist's homes and studios over four decades, an inspired initiative for which we have to thank Professor David H. Solkin and his team. For not only does this often touching and amusing display give us a vivid account of the artist's household, but also some unexpected insights into Gainsborough's methods of working and development as an artist more generally.

The unfinished state of most of these pictures can be explained by the fact that once Gainsborough had caught the essential elements of the face and pose of his family sitter, since the image was never intended for sale he saw little point in adding the rest. Unlike his contemporaries, such as Reynolds, he was accustomed to finish all his portraits himself, rather than passing them on to an assistant to add the dress and other details. So, unfinished these remained.

However, Gainsborough also used these family canvases to paint more freely and to experiment with poses and compositions that would later become striking elements in his public productions. Indeed, his bravura brushwork in these domestic pictures, his 'Variety of lively touches and surprising Effects', as he described them, is one of their principal delights.

The artist's experience of childhood poverty and his financially demanding (and not always grateful) family kept him painting portraits, the 'curs'd Face Business', as he once called it, when he would much have preferred to devote himself to landscapes. But while aristocratic and royal clients clamoured for portraits, his landscapes accumulated unsold, stacked in the hallway to his London studio. And, alas, he never did fulfil his dream of giving up portraiture altogether and walking off 'to some sweet village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness & ease.'

Early Gainsborough: From the obscurity of a Country Town; Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, Suffolk; 20 October 2018 -17 February 2019; Gainsborough's Family Album; National Portrait Gallery, London; 22 November 2018 - 3 February 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023