Statue of Gainsborough in Sudbury
The art world in the second quarter of the eighteenth century was severely restricted. There was a fixed hierarchy of subjects, with the Bible and ancient history at the top. Lower down the hierarchy there was a market in painting views, and pastiches of landscape artists Claude and Gaspard. But the main, and perhaps only way in which an artist could make a living was in the poorly regarded painting of portraits, of people, and their dogs and horses. This mundane reality did not immediatly make itself felt in the career of Gainsborough. Thomas Gainsborough, the son of a well-to-do Suffolk weaver had arrived in London in 1740 to train as an artist after showing talent as a boy. He trained with William Gravelot, and then with Hogarth's school, and spent his artistic education amongst a group of young artists known as the St Martin's Lane set. This group was anti-establishment, anti-academic, and like most talented young men from any age, naturally inclined to oppose outworn tradition. Gainsborough joined in some of their exciting new projects, such as providing art for Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, owned by Jonathon Tyers, collector of avant-garde art and the most generous benefactor of English art at the time. The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were a central part of London's social scene, and working on artistic projects for them must have been quite a thrill. Sadly this great symbol of a new emerging culture no longer exists. All that is left is the small green space of Spring Gardens close to Vauxhall Station. A better idea of how the gardens once looked can be gained by visiting that other great eighteenth century pleasure garden, Ranleagh Gardens in Chelsea, where the Chelsea Flower Show takes place.
Gainsborough's House in Sudbury
Many a university graduate knows the sadness of leaving behind the freedom of student years and settling down to the mundane reality of working life. Gainsborough set up a practice in London. After a remarkable early landscape painting The Charterhouse, evoking a summer's day in London, it became clear that landscapes would not pay the bills. With his new wife Margaret, Gainsborough moved back to his home village of Sudbury in Suffolk and got on with painting portraits. A living had to be made, and Gainsborough was not a natural innovator. Inspite of hanging around with the St Martin's Lane set he was no firebrand revolutionary, and was not going to starve in a garret painting pictures which would only sell after he was dead. Gainsborough was a charming, down to earth sort of man, who had little time for general causes, and certainly did not set out to change the world. That kind of thing was "out of his way". He simply put his energy and talent into keeping his clients happy. But it was precisely his lack of earnestness that allowed him to see through the presumptions of his day and bring a direct freshness to his painting. Gainsborough's portraits provided striking likenesses, and, inspite of all the fine clothes put on for the occasion, a sense of informality and life. This kind of feeling is summed up by the charming portrait of Gainsborough's two young daughters Mary and Margaret chasing a butterfly. People so often tend to look at the world through the lens of contemporary preconceptions. You can imagine Gainsborough shrugging his shoulders and seeing things as they were.
Gainsborough's life was governed by the dictates of the portrait trade. Business was slow in Sudbury, so the couple, and their two young daughters moved to Ipswich in 1752, and then Bath in 1759. Here commissions came in quickly, and Gainsborough's reputation grew, so much so that in 1769 he was invited to become one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts. This may have been a flattering invitation, but it entailed boring committee meetings, which Gainsborough did his best to avoid. Gainsborough's relationship with the Academy was never strong, and he stopped exhibiting his pictures there after only a few years. But this did not inhibit his career. By the time he moved to Schomberg House in Pall Mall in 1774 Gainsborough had a reputation as one of England's best portrait painters. He was the royal family's favourite painter, and received many royal commissions.
Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy of Arts thought a portrait had to rise above fashion by avoiding a contemporary look. A timeless quality, apparently, was achieved by putting a subject in some kind of mythical or generalised setting. Gainsborough painted what he saw, people dressed up for the big occasion of getting themselves painted. I personally love the portrait of his attractive wife Margaret, painted around 1778, where she appears to be reaching up to check that the lace around her hair is straight. Somehow in capturing little moments of hair straightening, Gainsborough finds a universal quality. The painting Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting of 1783 is an example of Gainsborough's personal, unacademic, and yet profound quality. Gainsborough hated suffering and cruelty, and in this picture a dog fight is witnessed by two boys. One is enjoying the fight, and wants it to continue, while the other is intent on getting the dogs apart and saving them from injury. He tries to do this by hitting the dogs with a stick, but is hindered in his efforts by his malignant friend blocking the blows. This reflects on the duality of human nature. There is a bad character enjoying the fight, and a good one trying to stop it. And yet the virtuous boy wanting to stop the fight is trying to do so with a stick. There is something oddly incongruous about the cruel character of the picture showing his malignancy in attempting to block his friend's blow. The dark and light sides of humanity are difficult to disentangle. In a similar way the revolutionary and conservative sides of Gainsborough are also difficult to disentangle. One led to the other.
Gainsborough died on 2nd August 1788, and Joshua Reynolds paid tribute to him by dedicating his Christmas lecture at the Royal Academy that year wholly to Gainsborough. Reynolds, the great establishment figure, president of the Royal Academy, had an almost guilty love of Gainsborough's work. He realised his contemporary's straightforward ways had achieved something that serious minded academic artists had missed:
"I confess I take more interest in, and am more captivated with, the powerful impression of nature, which Gainsborough exhibited in his portraits and in the landscapes, and the interesting simplicity and elegance of his little ordinary beggar children than with any of the world of that [Roman] School... I lay myself open to censure and ridicule of the academical professors of other nations, in preferring the humble attempts of Gainsborough to the works of those regular graduates in the great historical style. But we have the sanction of all mankind in preferring genius in the lower rank of art, to feebleness and insipidity in the highest" (Sir Joshua Reynolds Discourses on Art P248, quoted Gainsborough by John Hayes P11).