Sunday, 7 June 2015


“Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance.” - Charles Lindbergh

Thomas Gainsborough (c. 1727–1788) was one of nine children born to John Gainsborough, a weaver and woollen cloth merchant, in Sudbury, in Suffolk, England. He was born in the spring of 1727 and christened on May 14. Perhaps due to his mother’s penchant for painting flowers and encouraging her son’s talent with a pencil, Gainsborough assembled a rather impressive portfolio at a young age. By 10, he had drawn some local village landscapes, and added caricatures and other facial studies.

His father was sufficiently impressed with his work to allow him to go to London, England, where he studied at an academy in St. Martin’s Lane under the renowned William Hogarth and other masters known for etching, historical painting and portraiture. During this time Gainsborough fell in love with Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, and her dowry allowed him to set up a studio in Ipswich by the time he was 20.

When his landscapes were not selling, Gainsborough turned to portraiture for money. He moved his wife and two daughters to Bath, where there was a more bustling influx of upscale clientele, and set to studying the painter Sir Anthony van Dyck for insight into technique. His reputation began to grow. Sending his portraits to the Society of Arts exhibitions in London (his Ipswich friend Joshua Kirby was president), especially those of his more prominent sitters, helped attract attention to his work. Gainsborough’s increasing prosperity allowed him to indulge his passion for music. He learned to play the viola da gamba (a fretted string instrument), the harp and the hautboy (oboe), among other instruments, and employed a houseful of international musicians.

Perhaps because of his lively nature, the tall, handsome and garrulous Gainsborough enjoyed spending time with theatre folk. He painted celebrated actors such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons, and also lesser-known players, gifting his portraits to them, as well as sketches and landscapes. By 1774, he had become so successful, it was silly not to be in London. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy, and not long after moving his family to the capital, he was summoned to the palace and began portraits of King George III and other nobles. Although the king was obliged to name his rival, Joshua Reynolds, as the official court painter, Gainsborough remained the favourite of the royal family.

Thomas Gainsborough died of cancer on August 2, 1788, at the age of 61. He requested to be buried at St. Anne’s Church at Kew, which was the royal family’s primary residence and known for its lush and varied landscape. It was a fitting locale, since Gainsborough had returned to his love of landscape painting in his waning years and become known for his simple settings, elegant brushwork and extraordinary use of light. And yet, Gainsborough’s most recognisable painting today is probably a portrait of the son of a wealthy merchant, known simply as “The Blue Boy”.

Legend has it that Gainsborough tried to reconcile with Joshua Reynolds, his rival, at his deathbed. The two share a reputation as the most famous portraitists of the latter 18th century. Gainsborough is also known one of the originators of the 18th century British landscape school. A later painter with a similar reputation, John Constable, was a huge fan, saying of Gainsborough’s landscapes, “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.”

Above is a seascape of his, exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. It is “A Seapiece, A Calm” painted around 1783. To render effectively the effects of light Gainsborough painted scenes on glass transparencies and viewed them by means of a “peep-show box”, which still survives (Victoria & Albert Museum, London). The artist’s experiments with such techniques demonstrate his attention to light and atmospheric effects, in preference to mere reproduction of detail. In the painting above (exhibited in London’s Royal Academy in 1783), Gainsborough achieves realistic effects by focusing on the qualities of light, atmosphere and water.

1 comment:

  1. Cool stuff.

    Portrait painting, especially of wealthy and important people, was always likely to be more lucrative. But there were plenty of good portrait painters. If Gainsborough was going to make a special name for himself, he had to create portraits-set-in-landscapes. This allowed him to continue to love landscapes AND it allowed the proud land owners to show off their estates.