1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough
English painter

THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH (1727-1788), a painter famous for the truth and elegance of his portraits, and for the simple beauty of his landscapes, was born at Sudbury, Suffolk, in the year 1727. His father, who carried on the business of a woollen crape-maker in that town, was of a respectable character and family, and was noted for his skill in fencing; his mother excelled in flower-painting, and encouraged her son in the use of the pencil. There were nine children of the marriage, At ten years old, Gainsborough had sketched every fine tree and picturesque cottage near Sudbury, and at fifteen, having filled his task-books with caricatures of his schoolmaster, forged his father's handwriting to get a holiday, and sketched the portrait of a man whom he had detected in the act of robbing his father's orchard, he was allowed to follow the bent of his genius in London, under such advantages as Hayman, the historical painter, and the academy in St Martin's Lane, could afford, Three years of study in the metropolis were succeeded by two years of idleness in the country. Here he fell in love with Margaret Burr, a young lady of many charms, including an annuity of ¿£200, married her after a short courtship, and, at the age of twenty, became a householder in Ipswich, his rent being ¿£6 a year. The annuity was reported to come from Margaret's real (not her putative) father, who was one of the exiled Stuart princes, or else the duke of Bedford. At Ipswich, Gainsborough tells us, he was " chiefly in the face-way," though his sitters were not so numerous as to prevent him from often rambling with his friend Joshua Kirby (president of the Society of Artists) on the banks of the Orwell, from painting many landscapes with an attention to details which his later works never exhibited, or from joining a musical club, and entertaining himself and his fellow-townsmen by giving concerts. But as he advanced in years he became ambitious of advancing in reputation. Bath was then the general resort of wealth and fashion, and to that city, towards the close of the year 1759, he removed with his wife and two daughters, the only issue of their marriage. His studio in the circus was soon thronged with visitors; he gradually raised his price for a half-length portrait from 5 to 40 guineas, and for a whole-length from 8 to 100 guineas. Among his sitters at this period were the authors Sterne and Richardson, and the actors Quin, Henderson, and Garrick. Meanwhile he contributed both portraits and landscapes to the annual exhibitions in London. He indulged his taste for music by learning to play the viol-di-gamba, the harp, the hautboy, the violoncello. His house harboured Italian, German, French, and English musicians. He haunted the green-room of Palmer's theatre, and painted gratuitously the portraits of many of the actors. He gave away his sketches and landscapes to any one who had taste or assurance enough to ask for them; and in the summer of 1774, having already attained a position of great prosperity, he took his departure for the metropolis, and fixed his residence at Schömberg House, Pall Mall, a noble mansion still standing, for which the artist paid £300 a year, Gainsborough had not been many months in London ere he received a summons to the palace, and to the end of his career he divided with West the favour of the court, and with Reynolds the favour of the town. Sheridan, Burke, Clive, Blackstone, Hurd, were among the number of those who sat to him. But in London as in Bath his landscapes were exhibited, were commended, won the good opinion of Walpole the fastidious and Wolcot the surly, and were year after year returned to him, " till they stood," says Sir William Beechey, " ranged in long lines from his hall to his painting-room." Gainsborough was a member of the Royal | Academy, but in 1784, being dissatisfied with the position j assigned on the exhibition-walls to his portrait of the three princesses, he withdrew that and his other pictures, and he never afterwards exhibited there. In February 1788, while witnessing the trial of Warren Hastings, he felt an extraordinary chill at the back of his neck; this was the beginning of a cancer (or, as some say, a malignant wen) which proved fatal on 2nd August of the same year.

Gainsborough was tall, fair, and handsome, generous, impulsive to the point of capriciousness, easily irritated, not of bookish likings. The property which he left at his death was not large. One of his daughters, Mary, had married contrary to his wishes, and was subject to fits of mental aberration.

Gainsborough and Reynolds rank side by side as the greatest portrait painters of the English school. It is difficult to say which stands the higher of the two, although Reynolds may claim to have worked with a nearer approach to even and demonstrable excellence. In grace, spirit, and lightness of insight and of touch, Gainsborough is peculiarly eminent. His handling was slight for the most part, and somewhat arbitrary, but in a high degree masterly; and his landscapes and rustic compositions are not less gifted than his portraits. Among his finest works are the likenesses of Lady Ligonier, the duchess of Devonshire, Master Buttall (the Blue Boy), Mrs Sheridan and Mrs Tickell, Orpin the parish-clerk (National Gallery), the Hon. Mrs Graham (Scottish National Gallery), his own portrait (Royal Academy), Mrs Siddons (National Gallery); also the Cottage Door, the Market Cart, the Return from Harvest, the Woodman and his Dog in a Storm (destroyed by fire), and Waggon and Horses passing a Brook (National Gallery). He made a vast number of drawings and sketches.

In 1788 Philip Thicknesse, lieut.-governor of Landguard Fort, who had been active in promoting Gainsborough's fortunes at starting, but was not on good terms with him when he left Bath, gave to the world A Sketch of the Life and Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough; in 1829 Allan Cunningham published a memoir of him in his Lives of the Painters; and in 1856 there appeared A Life of Thomas Gainsborough. S.A., by G. W. Fulcher.

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