Skip to Content

Lead book review

The dazzling vision of Thomas Gainsborough

Working resolutely indoors in semi-darkness, he produced the airiest, most poetic paintings imaginable

12 August 2017

9:00 AM

12 August 2017

9:00 AM

Gainsborough James Hamilton

Weidenfeld, pp.448, £25

There are a number of reports by his contemporaries of Thomas Gainsborough at work. They make you realise what a very strange painter he was. There was an element of theatricality in his working practice — the public would expect to be astonished when they glimpsed it — but, even so, it is difficult to imagine any artist producing anything using Gainsborough’s methods. He painted in semi-darkness, and an observer reported that sitters for portraits found that ‘neither they nor their pictures were scarcely discernible’.

The canvas, if large, was hung loosely, ‘secured by small cords’. James Hamilton describes it as ‘rigged perhaps like a small yacht, the canvas bellying with every move’. It was placed right next to the sitter, and some commentators later claimed that Gainsborough used brushes six feet long. When painting a landscape, he did not venture outside, but constructed a little model in his parlour. It shocks us, impressed by the moral imperative to paint nature en plein air, but Gainsborough

would place cork and coal for his foregrounds & make middle grounds of sand and clay, bushes of mosses & lichens, & set up distant woods of broccoli.

Out of this bizarre — even tawdry —practice, he produced some of the most poetic paintings imaginable. He responded rapturously to the idea of nature, not some observed truth. (It has been remarked that you can tell from Constable’s ski​es​ what the weather will be like in six hours’ time, whereas with Gainsborough it’s impossible to say whether he intends a sunset or
a sunrise.)

Like his contemporary Fragonard, he dissolves the world into a fantastic surface, subduing its people into a subjective place of feathery brushstrokes and trees like bath foam. Gainsborough has an important place in British art: from him springs a line of visionaries whose eyes were directed inwards, from Samuel Palmer to Edward Burne-Jones and beyond. To some degree they painted what they saw when they closed their eyes.

Gainsborough’s portrait of his 
son-in-law, Johann Christian Fischer
Gainsborough’s portrait of his
son-in-law, Johann Christian Fischer

One of the surprises of reading about Gainsborough, and even more when reading his wonderful letters, is how very far he was from a mannered exquisite. He was born in Sudbury, Suffolk in 1727, and his family, though poor and prone to disaster, encouraged ambition. (One brother was a pioneer of steam power.) Thomas showed an early talent for art, and went to London. aged just 13. There he came into contact with some of the great painters of the day, including Hogarth and Francis Hayman, just at the moment when French engravers and artists were bringing a new degree of elegance to British art. Much later, when George III commissioned ‘The Mall in St James’s Park’ (1783) and intelligently said that for this overwhelming idyll,‘he did not desire the high finish of Watteau, but a sketchy picture’, Gainsborough knew precisely what he meant.


Gainsborough’s life in London was, clearly, riotous, and he was making a good name for himself. So it’s puzzling why, in 1748, he moved back to the stolid backwater of Sudbury, with fewer patrons and possibilities. The reason, perhaps, was his marriage in 1746. The 18-year-old Margaret Burr was what Jane Austen’s Emma much later fantasises about her friend Harriet being — the illegitimate daughter of a great duke. She had the respectable sum of £200 a year settled on her; and she was also, to say the least, a strong character. Did she balance the greater opportunities in London against the greater temptations for a wastrel like Gainsborough?

Somehow, Gainsborough managed to find more patrons and more debauchery in Suffolk, painting the extraordinary unfinished double portrait ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, which boasts about the extent of land ownership. Hamilton suggests that it was handed over unfinished by the hot-headed painter because the sitters baulked at some obscene imagery for Mrs Andrews’s lap. The painting was tucked away and not seen widely until the 1927.

At this time he also met a wild but important figure, Philip Thicknesse, who by the end of his life was claiming credit for ‘discovering’ Gainsborough. Thicknesse drew the painter away from Sudbury and encouraged him to move to Bath, where the fashionable world could at least view his work. Certainly Gainsborough’s portrait of Thicknesse’s future wife Ann Ford drew a lot of attention. When Mrs Delaney saw this magnificent portrait, one of the first that Gainsborough painted on his arrival in Bath, she called it ‘a most extraordinary figure, handsome and bold; but I should be very sorry to have any one I loved set forth in such a manner’.

Ann Ford (later Mrs Philip Thicknesse)
Ann Ford (later Mrs Philip Thicknesse)

During his time in Bath, Gainsborough established himself as a rival to the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, and was decidedly more amusing company. His painting developed from a doll-like provincial manner to the fluid flurries of his mature style. By the time he moved to London, in 1774, he was immensely famous. Unlike Reynolds, he saw his portrait practice as embedded in contemporary life. His element of fantasy did not depend on getting his sitters to pose sacrificing to the Graces, or asking their children to dress up as Henry VIII, as Reynolds did. In a famous letter to a dissatisfied client, he writes: ‘Nothing can be more absurd than the foolish custom of painters dressing people like scaramouches, and expecting the likeness to appear.’

Gainsborough painted his people as they dreamt of appearing, without meaningless flattery; he was very funny about the size of Mrs Siddons’s nose, but often saw his sitters as genuinely beautiful, even (to an embarrassing degree) in the case of the royal family. The King was obliged to make Reynolds his Painter in Ordinary, but he and the Queen loved Gainsborough best — and no wonder. His paintings of them are miracles of unobtrusive sympathy, none more than the astonishing set of 15 small portraits of the royal family, of unprecedented simplicity and grace. They include posthumous portraits, one of a very dreamlike quality. The Queen broke down in public when she saw them.

Hamilton is a first-rate art historian, who has written an excellent life of Turner and a superlative book about the 19th-century art industry, A Strange Business. Writing vividly about Gainsborough’s two portraits of a scandalous pair called Ligonier (the wife slept with her husband’s groom), he says: ‘No wonder the horse looks as if he knows it all: he did.’ He gives us deft explanations of mysterious artistic effects — Gainsborough’s use of ground glass in the medium, how he might have learnt about it, and what it does to the surface. But the question of money is Hamilton’s core expertise: how much Gainsborough earned and how much of it went on necessary display, such as grand houses in Bath and Pall Mall. And fascinating it is, too.

I would have welcomed a little more about Gainsborough’s contemporaries. He was an unusual painter, but a very collegiate one, and he worked in a social milieu of borrowing and mutual influence. Some of those minor painters whom he must have looked at — Bartholomew Dandridge at the beginning, John Hamilton Mortimer towards the end — would have been interesting to have followed up. And it’s surprising to be told that on Gainsborough’s triumphant return to London ‘Francis Hayman and Johan Zoffany were at work’, as if they were in their prime. By 1774, Hayman had been a busted flush for years, and was almost certainly no longer painting.

Hamilton is very good, though, on the human side. The complicated story of Gainsborough’s own marriage, and his daughter Mary’s disastrous one to the celebrated oboist Johann Christian Fischer, is absorbingly told. The portrait of Fischer is one of the great masterpieces, and, though he can never have been paid anything for it, Gainsborough kept it around for years. Presumably everyone knew what Fischer looked like, and its value as an advertisement for Gainsborough’s skill in capturing a likeness trumped any pain it may have given Mary.

Best of all is a very funny chapter about Gainsborough’s ludicrous obsession with music, and his absurd habit of turning up at the houses of famous musicians and offering them huge sums of money for their lutes, violas da gamba or (in the case of Fischer) his oboe. Once acquired, they proved disappointingly hard to master. ‘Probably his ear was too delicate to bear the disagreeable sounds which necessarily attend the first beginnings on a wind instrument.’

Gainsborough is one of the most lovable of great artists, and his personality shines through. This is an enjoyable biography by a writer who understands him.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close