Gainsborough’s Family Album @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition is pure visual, intellectual and emotional pleasure. It is beautifully hung and really informatively labelled and guided. In particular the American scholar who curated it, David Solkin, is pitch perfect in his audioguide commentary, telling you exactly what you need to know about each key painting, and about Gainsborough’s wider family background.

It’s a simple enough idea: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was one of the 18th century’s most successful portrait painters, rising from modest beginnings in Sudbury Suffolk, to owning a mansion on Pall Mall and being painter to Britain’s aristocracy, rivalled only by the towering figure of his contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But alongside his formal commissions he painted an unusual number of portraits of his immediate and extended family. This exhibition brings together some 50 of these paintings and a few drawings, some familiar from national collections, some never before publicly displayed, to tell the story of his changing and evolving painterly style, as well as the biographies of himself, his wife and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, and other members of the extended family.

It’s not quite a portrait of the age but it’s certainly a portrait of a charming, sometimes tragic, often comic and endearing family, told via sketches, drawings and paintings which are sometimes breath-takingly beautiful.

The two Gainsboroughs

It’s always seemed to me there are two Gainsboroughs: the early paintings from the 1740s feature beanpole figures with Woodentop faces which I personally find difficult to take seriously.

the artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

The artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

Then something seismic happened to his technique during the 1750s, so that within a decade his handling of the human face had become marvellously expressive, and his handling of the volume and shape of the human body, masterful.

The following is one of my all-time favourite paintings, one of the best depictions of love and affection and innocence I know of. it looks and feels as if by a completely different artist from the painting above.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

It demonstrates several of Gainsborough’s qualities. One is the characteristic ‘feathering’ of the trees and clouds in the background. Another is that it is unfinished – a lot of the paintings in this exhibition are unfinished. They demonstrate his sprezzatura, his ability to rough out an image at astonishing speed.

And for me, personally, I love the way you can see the artist at work. I almost like the rough sketching of the arms and hands as much as the smooth finish of the seraphic faces. They remind me of the quick evocative charcoal sketches by Degas which were exhibited next door at the National Gallery earlier this year. I love draughtsmanship, outlines, the miraculous way a few lines on a flat surface can conjure up the look and feel of warm human bodies, and many of even the most mature paintings on display here have an unfinished quality, which allows you to enjoy Gainsborough’s terrific verve and confidence.

Gainsborough’s speed

In fact Gainsborough’s legendary speed often caused him problems. One was that, even once he was famous, his clients regularly complained that he’d left his paintings unfinished. There’s an example here of his wife, done in sumptuous silks but, when you look closer, lacking hands, as if he was in too much of a hurry to bother.

As to sheer speed the commentary tells us that he made this painting of his nephew and protégé, Gainsborough Dupont, in one hour. One hour. It is riveting to be able to examine this painting really closely and observe the nerveless precision of his draughtsmanship and the dash and confidence of his brushstrokes. The eyes and eyebrows in particular dazzled me. Note the ‘feathering’ effect of the background and the quick, dashed-off impression of the boy’s ‘cavalier’ costume.

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist's nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

The influence of van Dyck

As he became more successful the young painter moved from his Suffolk home to the fashionable spa resort of Bath. Here he made important contacts with rich clients and also got the opportunity, when visiting the aristocracy, to see their collections of Old Masters.

Of all the past masters, the one that struck him most was Sir Anthony van Dyck, the Flemish painter who came over to work at the court of Charles I in the 1630s. I’d love to know whether it was the deliberate attempt to copy van Dyck which led to the revolution in his work which I indicated above. Certainly Gainsborough revered van Dyck till his dying day. In fact the exhibition tells us that, as his death from terminal cancer approached, he told those around him he wanted to be measured against van Dyck, and apparently his very last words were ‘Van Dyck is right’.

The commentary on the Gainsborough Dupont portrait mentions that van Dyck used flicks of red to create depth of colouring of human skin and then points out just such red flecks which you can see if look closely above the figure’s left eye. It’s the type of opportunity to lean right into the real paintings, and to really appreciate their subtle technique – to see at first hand exactly how paint is laid onto the canvas – which makes visiting exhibitions like this so worthwhile.

Gainsborough’s daughters

The exhibition brings together all twelve surviving portraits Gainsborough made of his beloved daughters. The ones of them as children are wonderful (see above) but the portraits follow them through into young womanhood and then maturity. We learn at one point that he taught them both how to paint landscapes so that they would have a trade to fall back on in case he should be struck down. Later on we learn that the younger sister married but the marriage broke down after just two years. She suffered mental illness and moved in with her older sister who never married and cared for her for the rest of her life.

In this painting I was drawn to the peripheral details, to Gainsborough’s ‘feathery’ treatment of the trees’ foliage, and to the shaggy dog, a symbol, we are told, of fidelity, to the extraordinary finish on the shimmering silk of the daughter on the left. But keep returning to the faces, especially of the daughter on the right, which seems to frank and open and candid.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Gainsborough’s wife

Family tradition had it that Gainsborough painted a portrait of his wife every year and gave it to her as a present on their wedding anniversary.

The commentary doesn’t make a meal of it but strongly hints that Gainsborough was serially unfaithful to his wife who was well known for having a fierce temper. Maybe the paintings were a form of atonement.

Rather beautifully, their relationship is discussed in terms of their dogs because Thomas owned a brisk alert collie which he called Fox (maybe because it looked a bit fox-like but also in humorous reference to the fat radical politician of the day, Charles James Fox). His wife owned a spaniel, which she named Tristram after the hero of the wildly popular contemporary novel, Tristram Shandy. Moreover:

‘Whenever [Gainsborough] spoke crossly to his wife …he would write a note of repentance, sign it with the name of his favourite dog, ‘Fox’, and address it to his Margaret’s pet spaniel, ‘Tristram’. Fox would take the note in his mouth and duly deliver it…’

In 1746, aged just 19, Gainsborough had married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled a £200 annuity on the couple. The commentary points out that at various tight moments in the 1750s and before he became successful, the couple had to borrow extensively against the promise of this annuity.

Apparently, Margaret was the tough-minded, business-minded person in the relationship, with Gainsborough being the more slothful and phlegmatic. He casually had affairs. She went mad with anger.

None of this is present in the later portraits of her, quite a few of which are gathered here, which really beautifully capture the flavour of mature married love, of mutual forgiveness and affection. Next to the daughters with the invisible cat, this painting of Margaret Gainsborough was my favourite work in the show. It is marvellous how he has captured (or invented or created) the impression of deep and affectionate character in her face, in the deep calm accepting maturity of her gaze.

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Other points

The exhibition has other themes. Although he made his living as a Society portrait painter, throughout his life Gainsborough’s first love was landscape painting, and the exhibition contains a massive unfinished landscape, included on the pretext that two of the figures in its central incident of a farm cart pulled by unruly horses are based on his two daughters (the white-chested figure looking up, and the woman being pulled up into the cart).

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

We learn an awful lot about Gainsborough’s extended family and there is a big family tree at the start of the show showing just how extensive it was. The wall labels give us interesting anecdotes about his father and mother (he went bankrupt) about his sisters (one was a milliner which gave him a lifelong interest in fabrics and women’s dresses) about one brother, Humphrey, who became a non-conformist minister and was also a noted inventor, while the other one, John, became known in the family as ‘Scheming Jack’ because of his endless moneymaking plans and schemes all of which came to nothing with the result that Scheming Jack and his family lived on handouts from his siblings.

In other words, there’s a lot of fascinating gossip-cum-social history mixed in with the art appreciation.

And then there is the steady sequence of self-portraits, not quite as profound and searching as, say, Rembrandt’s, but stretching from his earliest works in the 1740s right to the end of his life in 1788, which take you on a fascinating journey from ambitious neophyte, to proud father, to accomplished craftsman, to ageing husband.

The exhibition tells us that he wanted this self-portrait to be the approved one, with (as the commentary points out) its rather quizzical raised eyebrow, and the air of a calm mature man, confident in his powers and conscious of a life well lived (and note the jazzy, unfinished squiggles which depict his neckerchief. Dazzling sprezzatura and confidence right to the end!)

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

This is a wonderful, gossipy, beautiful and life-affirming exhibition.

Battle of the videos

NPG have commissioned an official video of the show:

But there’s also an informal review by Visiting London Guide which shows more pictures and gives more information.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759-68)

Everything in the world is big with jest.

This is sort of embodied in Vol VII where Tristram flees Death heading South to warm France and ends up dancing with a beautiful gypsy girl. Or in Vol IX where he gets fed up of trying to tell the story of Widow Wadman & Uncle Toby & cuts to himself in the south of France listening to the postillion telling him the touching story of the unhinged country girl…

Tristram Shandy was published in 5 instalments: Vols 1&2; 3&4; 5&6; 7&8; 9. It came out annually between 1759 and 1768. Like Harry Potter.

The book is made of a number of elements. For me Sterne grasps two particularly profound aspects of ‘the novel’: the ambiguous role of the narrator; the arbitrary and thus ludicrous function of chapters.

[It must be said that, for all its tomfoolery, Tristram Shandy emphatically partakes of Ian Watts’s ‘formal realism’ every bit as much as Crusoe or Pamela: almost more so in that the characters are taken to be real people, with realistic names, in a realistic setting, behaving in silly but ultimately plausible ways].

The Digressive Narrator

Sterne noticed the centrality of the narrator as a puppetmaster in Fielding’s novels. But Fielding can be relied upon to return to the plot: what if the narrator didn’t return? What if he wandered off all over the place, constantly distracted?

Why would he do that? Two reasons:

  • Brain damage – as outlined by Walter Shandy p.296: Tristram’s animal spirits are dispersed at conception; then his mother seethes with resentment for 9 months; then his head is squashed by Dr Slop’s forceps. No wonder his mind wanders.
  • Locke’s theory of associations: Locke provides an intellectual underpinning for the novel’s divagations with his theory that the mind, the understanding, works through chains or trains of associated thoughts. Thus Walter’s learned obsessions e.g. with names and noses, and Toby’s notorious obsession with fortifications.

Thus we arrive at the easy paradox that the main body of the text is made of digressions and diversions.

Learned Wit

The tradition of learned wit i.e. using learning for comic effect by:

  • exaggeration
  • complexification
  • absurdity

Apparently the critic D.W. Jefferson coined the phrase ‘learnèd wit’ to characterise the tradition from Rabelais thru Cervantes to Sterne.

Thus Walter Shandy can be a receptacle for the most reconditely learnèd obsessions, and this provide a peg for the most ludicrous displays of abstruse learning, of the utterly useless medieval variety e.g. the long disquisition on noses and the quote from Slawkenbergius’s tome on same; or the treatise on swearing…

Chapters

Along with the key role of the unbalanced narrator, Sterne has grasped the key role of chapters in ‘the Novel’ i.e. their implicit absurdity. Any chapter break by any author in any novel is a huge, improbable, highly artificial, interference by the author in a narrative. Sterne plays on this insight for all it’s worth: once he’s discovered he can declare that he will have a chapter on a specific subject, there is no end to the nonsense of promising chapters on every subject under the sun:

There is no end in trying experiments upon chapters. (p.311)

Bawdy

A sexual understanding underpins the entire novel. It opens with the split second of Tristram’s conception: from then on there is a permanent risk that any remark he makes will have a sexual innuendo.

Innuendo is a question of creating a context, a mood, an atmosphere in which even the most prosaic or innocent remark can be misinterpreted as sexual in meaning. This is a question for pragmatics i.e. context over logical content.

  • It begins with sex
  • Uncle Toby’s wound in the groin is a source of endless innuendo
  • The debate about why Mrs Shandy did not want Dr Slop to come too close to her ****
  • The hot chestnut on Phutatorius’s penis (needing to be warped in a wet sheet from his new book about concubines!)
  • The crude summary of Vol IV Chap 8 as having been about chambermaids, a green gown (deflowering a virgin) and an old hat (the vagina)
  • The sole purpose of the story of the abbess of andouillets is to get a pair of nuns shouting Bugger and Fuck
  • The story of the mule leads abruptly to Tristram’s breeches being slashed and, strongly implied, his pecker falling out

Sterne was friends with John Hall-Stevenson, a rake and libertine, who lived in Skelton Castle (nicknamed Crazy Castle) where they held pale copies of the Medmenham Hellfire Club, under the name of the Demoniacs. J H-S appears as the character Eugenius throughout; at the end of Vol III the debate, supposedly called to discover whether Walter can change Tristram’s name – after he was accidentally baptised Tristram by Yorick – back to the intended Trismegistus, but which instead discusses whether a child is at all related to its parents, with the incident of Phutatorius and the hot chestnut in the groin, can be taken as a comic account of the Demoniacs, with appropriately Rabelaisian names (Mr Kiss-Arse, for example).

The Imagined Reader

In fact a variety of imagined readers are created in order to give Sterne numerous opportunities for turning the text into a dialogue. I suppose Bakhtin’s notion of the heteroglossia of the text is relevant ie it contains multiple voices in permanent dialogue. The actual dialogues are on a variety of subjects:

  • Bawdy, where he comically deflates what appeared to be a bawdy moment
  • Invocations, e.g. a prologue, preface, dedication
  • Critics, who are invoked to give their opinions

Thus the book can be said to have a far larger cast of characters than merely the named half dozen.

Decorum

We are always taught that the Augustans valued decorousness of literature and art more than any other age i.e. had a highly worked-out sense of the fittingness, the appropriateness, of various sentiments to literary forms. And yet this is the age with a strong parallel tradition of burlesquing and parodying this formality, from Pope’s satires to Fielding’s use of burlesque and parody.

Everybody agreed The Epic was the highest form (just as History painting was the highest genre). Which makes it the more striking that no Augustan considered themselves capable of one. Pope and Dryden translated Homer. But their age – the late 17th and early 18th centuries – saw the heyday of the mock epic. Among the most famous examples are Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel, and Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. A key source of the humour is the delivery of low matter in a highflown style. Fielding used this repeatedly in his novels, starting with the mock epic invocation or paean. He saw his novel as ‘a comic epic poem in prose’. Sterne simply represents this tradition taken to an extreme where the actual content

Death

Sterne was ill all through the writing of Tristram Shandy. Various characters die:

  • Yorick: and his tombstone
  • Brother Bobby
  • Tristram, in the middle of describing Trim & Toby’s campaigns on the bowling green, end of Vol VI, has a morbid vision of Trim attending Uncle Toby’s funeral
  • All of Vol VII appears to be Tristram trying to outrun death by fleeing to France. There’s a Shandy moment when Tristram’s adult flight overlaps with his boy-ish Grand Tour accompanied by Walter, Toby et al. But this volume feels strangley rushed and hysterical…

Timescale

1698 Uncle Toby injured at the siege of Namur
1700 Toby & Trim’s 1st year of building fortifications in the bowling green

Tristram’s conception

Tristram’s birth i.e. Obadiah bumping into Dr Slop, Tristram’s bungled delivery i.e. squashing his nose
Tristram’s christening by the vicar
Tristram’s penis is cut off by the window sash when Susannah made him pee out of the window because the maid forgot to put a chamber pot under the bed

Example of the wandering narrative

We never get to find out how Tristram’s brother, Bobby, died. Instead Walter is inspired to deliver a moving panegyric to him, so moving he forgets about his son’s actual death – and Mrs Shandy bursts in, misunderstanding what is going on – and we cut to Corporal Trim’s extempore eulogy in the servants’ quarters – which leads to a meditation on the dropping of his hat – and so on, but never back to Bobby…

Characters

  • Tristram Shandy
  • (Jenny, his consort)
  • (Eugenius, his friend)
  • Walter Shandy, his father
  • Mrs Shandy, his mother
  • Toby Shandy, his uncle
  • Bobby Shandy
  • Corporal Trim (James Butler)
  • Yorick the vicar
  • Dr Slop, the Catholic doctor
  • Susannah
  • Obadiah
  • Jonathan the coachman
  • The scullion
  • Didius – member of the Demoniacs
  • Phutatorius – member of the Demoniacs
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