Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton (2017)

Executive summary

Born in 1727, eighteenth century portrait and landscape artist Thomas Gainsborough was far less ambitious and canny than his main rival and the dominating artist of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Early in his career Gainsborough was fairly happy churning out portraits of local worthies in his nearest large town, Ipswich until he was encouraged to go to Bath to seek a higher class of client. Unlike Reynolds (a lifelong bachelor) Gainsborough married young – aged just 19 – the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat who had settled a £200 annuity on her for life. The earnings from his portraits supplemented this basic family income.

  1. Suffolk (1727 – 1740) childhood in Sudbury
  2. London (1740 – 1748) apprenticeship, prints, acquaintance with Hogarth, marries Margaret Burr
  3. Suffolk again (1748 – 1758) first Sudbury, then the more profitable town of Ipswich
  4. Bath (1759 – 1773: 14 years, first in Abbey Street, from 1767 at 17 King’s Circus)
  5. London again (1774 – 1788)

In his letters we have Gainsborough’s own testimony that he didn’t really like painting portraits, and he actively disliked the ‘ugly’ aristocrats who were his clients. But he was good at it and by the 1760s found himself renting a big town house in Bath, with a coach and horses and servants to run, and paying for tutors for his two beautiful daughters. By 1769 he calculated his annual expenses at £1,000. He didn’t like his clients, he would have preferred to spend his life painting idyllic landscapes. But he was trapped.

By the 1760s Gainsborough was established as one of the best portrait artists of the day and so was invited to join the new Royal Academy of Art set up in 1768, but he repeatedly argued with the hanging committee about the placing of his works in the annual exhibitions, and in other ways kept his distance from the kind of elite London circles which his frenemy, Reynolds, moved in.

Handsome and attractive, Gainsborough had a reputation among his friends as a womaniser and party animal, which he acknowledged in his letters. His wife had to put up with a lot. But the real sadness of his biography is that, although he lavished love and attention on his two beautiful daughters things didn’t turn out as he hoped – one divorced within weeks of her wedding and the other suffering premature dementia.

Detailed review

Far less authoritative and comprehensive than Ian McIntyre’s life of Joshua Reynolds, for at least two reasons. The main one is Gainsborough’s life was far more fleeting and elusive. Reynolds led an active social life among leading figures of the day who all kept records of their dinners and conversations, dedicated their books to him, plus one of his pupils kept notes and wrote a detailed biography soon after his death, plus the minutes and accounts of the clubs and societies he was a member of, not least the Royal Academy of the Arts which he helped found and was the first president of. Reynolds kept a detailed appointments book which recorded all his sitters, the dates and times of their appointments. In other words the biographer if Reynolds has a mass of paperwork and evidence to work with.

Gainsborough is an altogether more fleeting character. He left relatively few letters (150 in all), no diary or journal or accounts book. He didn’t even own many books at his death. He didn’t cultivate the best circles or make sure he was mentioned in their books by the best writers. He painted the rich and famous but didn’t like them very much, unlike super-sociable Reynolds.

For the biographer who requires a constellation of dates to steer by, Gainsborough supplies thin pickings. (p.6)

Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 into a large extended family based in the Suffolk town of Sudbury. His father was a weaver with ambitions to be a businessman, which got him into financial trouble – he only escaped debtors’ prison because of a family whip-round. A benevolent uncle – also named Thomas – left some money to help young Tom to pursue ‘some light handy craft trade’, and the family decided to send him to London at the tender age of 13 in 1740,

Here he trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot, of Huguenot extraction. Hamilton goes into some detail about the expanding print market of the mid-eighteenth century and the dominating figure of William Hogarth, whose moralised pictures had created a sensation in the 1730s – A Harlot’s Progress (1732), A Midnight Modern Conversation (1733), A Rake’s Progress (1735), Four Times of Day (1738). Gainsborough probably came into contact with Hogarth, but mainly worked for an established painter named Francis Hayman, although details about the period are sketchy.

[During his early years in London] whoever it was that nurtured him, Hayman or Hogarth or Canaletto or Hudson or other painters such as Arthur Devis who took assistants and apprentices, they all gave him something of what follows. (p.59)

The second reason this is not such a compelling book as McIntyre’s is that Hamilton makes an editorial decision to roll with the relative lack of information about Gainsborough and to make his approach a bit more impressionistic. Thus the opening sentences don’t tell us much about Gainsborough, but tell us everything about Hamilton’s style:

Thomas Gainsborough lived as though electricity shot through his sinews and crackled at his finger tips. There is a fire in Gainsborough: it lights up his paintings…

He is going to embroider and speculate – based on facts for sure, but a fairly thin picking of facts meringued up with many a fluffy turn of phrase.

Landscape, however, hovered around him like an old flame (p.84)

Like a family of cats jumping off a ledge, the Gainsboroughs had landed on their feet (p.160)

Whole pages pass wherein we learn a lot about mid-century Sudbury or Ipswich or Bath, embroidered and elaborated from contemporary accounts by diarists and commentators – but where Gainsborough himself doesn’t make an appearance. Other pages pass in speculation and guesswork and Hamilton is fond of drawing comparisons between aspects of Gainsborough’s society and our own.

Just as a salesman or marketing person or builder must drive an expensive car in the twenty-first century to reassure the world that he or she is doing all right, so in the eighteenth century a portrait painter had to look neat, confident and successful to attract the custom he needed. Fine clothes were very expensive indeed, and much aspired to: flash car and flash waistcoat are probably equivalent as status signifiers, if not in monetary terms. (p.120)

Or he quotes a letter where Gainsborough brags about owning 5 viola da gambas, three Jayes and two Barak Normans:

Today, a star of the art world might tell a friend, My comfort is I have 5 Lamborghinis, 3 Ferraris and two Aston Martins’ Their value as status symbols is roughly similar. (p.262)

Hamilton’s relentless urge to give eighteenth century people and customs a 21st century comparison can get pretty annoying, and sometimes offensive. After half a page giving a reasonable enough analysis of Gainsborough’s great portrait of the young women musician Ann Ford, Hamilton concludes:

With Ann Ford, Gainsborough added extra titty to the fluctuating city. (p.188)

Key learnings

Jack the Lad The biggest surprise, which Hamilton announces early and then refers repeatedly is that Thomas Gainsborough was a bit of a lad, a roaring boy, one for wine and the ladies. Hamilton routinely refers to Gainsborough as a lad, to his laddish behaviour, and to his ‘mates’.

There are distinct Jack-the-Lad tendencies about Gainsborough the young man… The 19th century song about Jack-the-Lad ‘swigging, gigging, kissing, drinking, fighting’ had echoes in the young Gainsborough…(p.133)

The idea is that although Gainsborough mixed professionally with numerous aristocratic sitters – ‘the Quality’, in the contemporary term – his tastes remained those of a country boy who came to London in his teens and was introduced to a dizzying world of booze and broads (Hamilton has a section describing the delights of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens) and what letters we have contain rather oblique references to regretting being led astray, particularly on his visits to London.

This is a striking claim but I don’t think he actually backs it up with that much evidence, mostly hearsay collected after his death, for example Joseph Farington quoting the artist’s daughter as saying he ‘was passionately fond of music… and this led him much into company with musicians, with whom he often exceeded the bounds of temperance & his health suffered from it, being occasionally unable to work for a week after’ (quoted page 111). Fine, but she was a small girl at the time and this report comes from decades later. Reliable?

Hamilton asserts that one his visits to London from Bath he had ‘the casual sexual encounters that punctuated his life’ but immediately goes on to say:

How many or how regular these were is impossible to tell. (p.199)

Well, if it is ‘impossible’ to tell how many ‘casual sexual encounters’ Gainsborough had, how come Hamilton is confidently telling us that they ‘punctuated his life’? Throughout the book I had the uneasy feeling that Hamilton was bending or interpreting the evidence to suit his vision of a freewheeling Jack the Lad. The more he asserted it, the more reluctant I felt to acquiesce, the more doubtful I felt of Hamilton’s opinions.

Hamilton quotes the daughter of an Ipswich friend describing him as ‘very lively, gay and dissipated’ (p.118) which fits his Jack the Lad thesis, but then goes on to explain that ‘dissipated’ might have its 18th century meaning of ‘spendthrift, an simply indicated that he spent beyond his means in order to dress his wife and growing daughters appropriately.

In autumn 1763 Gainsborough was very ill, laid up for three months unable to work, and a Bath newspaper even reported that he had died! Hamilton interprets the handful of letters we have to mean the illness was associated with a sexually transmitted disease because Gainsborough describes feeling guilt and regret. But then, to my surprise, Hamilton concedes:

It may be the case that Gainsborough’s long near-fatal illness had nothing to do with his sex life… (p.200)

So Hamilton’s entire speculation about the illness being related to an STD is just that – speculation. This kind of building castles in the sky and then, reluctantly, admitting the castles may all speculation, slowly and steadily undermined my trust in Hamilton as a guide and interpreter to Gainsborough’s life.

Making it up It’s a feeling compounded by the amount of sheer invention which appears on every page.

Now, in his late thirties, he was active, busy, in demand. His sitters’ book in Bath, assuming he had one, would have bulged with the names of old clients, new clients, their friends and relations and their various requirements. (p.203)

‘Assuming he had one’. Hamilton did warn us in his introduction that he would be weaving a certain amount of fantasia around the very thin documentary evidence which survives, and I wouldn’t mind if I thought his spinning were justified, but… his relentless habit of inventing things and then commenting on them didn’t agree with me and I came to dislike reading this book.

Destroyed letters We learn that part of the reason that so few of Gainsborough’s letters survive is because a surprising number were in Hamilton’s view ‘filthy’ – presumably sexually explicit – and so Gainsborough’s executors destroyed them – for example, the cache of letters sent to his friend Samuel Kilderbee and destroyed by Samuel’s heirs because of their ‘obscenity’.

But if they have been destroyed… how can we know what they contained? The generations after Gainsborough’s were not only more puritanical about sex but about religion too, and about family values. I.e. there could be a number of grounds why the letters gave offence to later generations and it was considered best to destroy them.

Spirited What is believable – because we can read it in the letters and in many diary accounts and memoirs of the period – is that Gainsborough was very high spirited. Good-looking, cutting a graceful figure, lively and talkative, he said whatever was on his mind, a fountain of lively observations, so much so that surviving letters and memoirs agree that, next morning, on sober reflection, he often regretted things he said. But being over-talkative and shooting from the hip is very different from being sexually promiscuous.

This high-spiritedness is a quality Gainsborough readily admits in himself, indeed actively promotes in some of his letters, writing:

I am the most inconsistent, changeable being, so full of fitts and starts… (quoted p.257)

or describing himself as:

a Long cross made fellow [who] only flings his arms about like threshing-flails without half an Idea what he would be at. (p.258)

Joshua Reynolds Later memoirists, notably Ephraim Hardcastle, give colourful accounts comparing and contrasting Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Hardcastle paints Reynolds in conversation as pursuing ‘a steady philosophic course’, while

the lively Gainsborough was a skipping and gambolling backwards and forwards from side to side… none for enthusiasm and vivacity could compare with he. (p.199)

Now this is the aspect of Gainsborough which is most consistently reported – his unbuttoned liveliness and spontaneity.

Margaret Aged 19, Thomas married a local woman Margaret Burr. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who acknowledged her and had settled a £200 annuity on her. Thus Thomas was marrying into what counted, in Sudbury, for money. It was to be a difficult marriage. Both were faithful, there was no divorce, Thomas had no mistresses, but Margaret owned and managed her own money, and there is plenty of evidence that she took a strong-willed approach to Thomas’s income, too (from his own letters and the accounts of others). He sometimes felt too much under her thumb. It was an effective working relationship but he writes on a couple of occasions that he didn’t feel worthy of her and the cumulative sense is that it was not a very loving marriage.

A life in five acts The trajectory of his life is indicated by the five parts of Hamilton’s account:

  1. Suffolk (1727 – 1740) childhood in Sudbury
  2. London (1740 – 1748) apprenticeship, prints, acquaintance with Hogarth, marries Margaret Burr
  3. Suffolk again (1748 – 1758) first Sudbury, then the more profitable town of Ipswich
  4. Bath (1759 – 1773: 14 years, first in Abbey Street, from 1767 at 17 King’s Circus)
  5. London again (1774-1778)

Landscapes He knew he was better at landscape than at portraits, and enjoyed painting landscapes more, but portraits paid the bills (in fact, Hamilton tells us that during his time in Ipswich 1752 – 1759, Gainsborough painted so many landscapes that he ended up giving them away, p.108).

Gainsborough’s landscapes are indebted to the style of Dutch landscape painting crossed with his own immersion of the Suffolk countryside around Sudbury. His early landscapes are already a joy to look at. This one was painted when he was only 20 years old. Pretty impressive.

Cornard Wood by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)

Doll paintings Whereas most of his portraits before the 1750s are embarrassingly bad. They look like skinny children’s doll’s with empty dolls’ faces plonked in lovely landscapes. In fact, Hamilton explains that the bodies really were painted from so-called ‘lay dolls’, wooden mannekins with jointed bodies which could be arranged in  different postures. Later, from the 1760s, he pained bodies and clothes from life, but not from the actual sitters, from much cheaper models brought in and made to wear the sitters’ clothes (p.218).

Sarah Kirby and Joshua Kirby by Thomas Gainsborough (1751-1752)

Music Gainsborough was very musical, unlike Reynolds. He was proficient on the violin and a member of the Ipswich Music Club which held regular concerts. He was easily distracted by invitations to play music, and portrayed musicians, with their instruments e.g. Johann Christian Fischer, Carl Friedrich Abel, Ann Ford,

Hamilton quotes the letter to William Jackson, well-known to Gainsborough buffs, in which the artist declares he is sick of painting portraits and wishes he could go off somewhere quiet in the country, just him and his viola da gamba, and live a quiet life of music and paint Landskips (p.260). However, Hamilton marshals the evidence of friends that he wasn’t, actually, that good at music and also that he was very impulsive, taking up a string of different instruments each time he heard one being played, and never becoming proficient on any of them (p.266-270).

Style transformed Hamilton doesn’t really identify how and why Gainsbrough’s depiction of human figures and faces changed, but change it did, drastically, between the early 1750s (when, to be fair, he was still only 23, 24, 25) and the later 1750s. But it amounts to a revolution in style, which allowed him to create depictions of human faces and figures of transcendent grace and beauty, such as this, the famous unfinished portrait of his two young daughters, Mary and Margaret.

The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-1761)

Bath Bath was hectic with social life and also with artistic competition. Over the 18th century as a whole some 160 artists worked in Bath, the majority portrait miniaturists. The most successful, like Gainborough, provided life-size portraits in oil on canvas and had a permanent show room as well as a ‘painting room’ (the Italian word studio was only introduced in the 19th-century).

Until Gainsborough arrived the most successful portrait painter in Bath was William Hoare (1707 – 1792) who Gainsborough quickly eclipsed, though the two men became friends. A flick through his work shows that it is very capable at catching a likeness, but a bit dead and, above all, set inside.

People in landscapes A glance at one of the largest and most ambitious (double portraits) Gainsborough painted at Bath, The Byam Family (1764) instantly shows you how placing his sitters outside, in a kind of generic gentle south-of-England wooded countryside immediately transforms the subjects, giving them a lordly sense of style and movement as well as a sense of ownership of the land they walk through. And gives the viewer a similar sense of breadth and ease

Gainsborough’s painting method The younger painter Ozias Humphrey observed Gainsborough painting on numerous occasions and left detailed descriptions (pp.217-218).

  1. Surprisingly, Gainsborough painted by candlight in a room kept perpetually dark.
  2. He painted the sitter’s face in chalk and arranged the canvas so it was only inches from the sitter’s face.
  3. He was very restless, stepping back from the canvas to size it up, then quickly right back up to it to paint more, in an endless round of fidgety movement.
  4. All he needed was the face; the costume was painted afterwards, worn by a model (often his wife or one of his by-now grown-up daughters was dragooned in).
  5. He painted for 5 or 6 hours a day continuously, quite a physically demanding regimen (although this is from the account of the unreliable witness, Philip Thicknesse, quoted page 339).

Contempt for sitters Gainsborough was fairly open about not liking most of his sitters: he described portrait painting as ‘my dam’d business’ and a ‘curs’d face business’, of the clients as ‘damn gentlemen’ and ‘confounded ugly creatures’ (quoted page 275).

Royalty Ironically, for all his focused ambition, Joshua Reynolds had a troubled relationship with King George III (ascended the throne in 1760) not least because Reynolds associated with writers and politicians associated with the Whig i.e. anti-royal faction. Whereas Gainsborough who was far less professionally and socially ambitious than Reynolds, was asked to do portraits of the king and queen in 1780 and ended up getting on famously with both of them, invited back to do portraits of their large brood of children and individual portraits.

Models No, not that sort. Later in his career, Gainsborough enjoyed making models for landscapes which could fit on a table and were constructed from broccoli, moss and stones.

Prices At the height of his fame, in the 1780s, Gainsborough charged for a three-quarters portrait 40 guineas, for half-length 80 guineas, and for a full-length 160 guineas.

Religion Hamilton describes Gainsborough as ‘a devout Anglican’, though there are almost no references to him going to church and only the most generic religious references in his letters, which are strewn with swearing (lots of ‘Damns’). It was a religiously tolerant family. His older brother, Humphrey, was a non-conformist minister, and his sister Mary, was a Methodist.

Kew Gainsborough is buried, not back home in Suffolk, in fashionable Bath, or in mercantile London, but in the graveyard of St Anne’s Church, Kew. I used to go and sit by his tomb and eat my sandwich lunch, when I worked at Kew.

Concluding image

There are a lot of Society ladies and gentlemen to choose from, but I think one of Gainsborough’s greatest paintings is this portrait of his wife, Margaret, done in the late 1770s. It is an extremely subtle, sensitive, sensuous depiction of his spouse of 25 years, a brilliant portrait of any middle-aged woman, honest and frank and a universe away – not only in terms of art, but of experience – from the silly doll-figures of the 1740s. It is a triumph of technique but also of human wisdom.

Portrait of Mrs Gainsborough by Thomas Gainsborough (1778) @The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


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