Christopher Woodward

How the master of landscape was transformed

Text settings


Susan Sloman

Yale, pp. 226, £

In 1760s Bath, the promenade from the Pump Room to the tree-lined Walks of Orange Grove passed a row of luxury shops and a sign reading 'Mr Gainsborough, Painter'. The artist's showroom shared the ground floor of a handsome town house with his sister's millinery shop, and the smell of the perfumes on sale mingled with the oil paint drying on masterpieces such as 'Countess Howe' and 'The Byam Family'.

In London, prints publicised an artist; in the crowded winter resort a showroom invited visitors with time and money on their hands to judge the likeness of a celebrity who might have been glimpsed in the Pump Room a few minutes before. If tempted, the client ascended to the artist's studio on the floor above. Gainsborough shared the grand house in Abbey Street, originally built for the Duke of Kingston, with his sister and her paying lodgers; she was one of ten members of the family to follow him from their native Suffolk to the booming spa in Somerset. Hung in a backroom were his views of the countryside around Bath, inhabited by the figures of colliers and gipsies encountered on excursions during the summer, when the resort was quiet and he could discuss art theory, new lenses and pigments with the gentleman collectors, doctors and apothecaries permanently resident in the city.

Every detail of the above is new research published by Dr Susan Sloman in her Gainsborough in Bath, a book which promises to be the definitive study of the painter's 16 years between leaving Sudbury in 1758 and departing from London in 1774. Arriving, he was 'an accomplished minor master of great charm'- in the words of Ellis Waterhouse - and charging five guineas for a head. Within a few years he was painting some of the most breathtaking portraits in Europe and had become 'one of the great masters of poetical landscape'. Sloman's purpose is to explain this transformation.

In the last two decades art historians such as Marcia Pointon and Michael Rosenthal have corrected the Victorians' image of Gainsborough as a 'natural developer' by demonstrating his restless intellectual curiosity and his awareness of social change in the countryside. This book applies this approach, and is also distinguished by many years of research into local newspapers and visitors' diaries, cataloguing pictures and discovering physical traces as slight but as suggestive as the shadow of the window - now blocked - which lit the studio in which 'The Blue Boy' stood to pose. Gainsborough's Bath becomes as vivid as Hogarth's London.

To begin with, Sloman argues that Bath was 'fleetingly, one of the cultural centres of Europe': a resort too easily caricatured for its indulgence in gambling, dancing and shopping also had the highest concentration of artists, musicians and writers outside the metropolis. A scandal about female nudity at the Mineral Water Hospital, for example, reveals the existence of the first art academy in the provinces.

On the other hand, that Bath was the showiest city in England - Josiah Wedgwood noted that shop windows were gaudier than in London - in part explains Gainsborough's transformation from the doll-like charm of the Suffolk portraits to what Michael Kitson described as the 'flashy' brilliance of a Countess Howe or Louisa Byam. His canvases continued the 'people-watching' of the resort, and his sparkling touches of paint were as sensitive to light as rosy cheeks on the frosty morning Promenade or the fashions designed to glitter under the chandeliers in the Assembly Rooms. More subtly, Sloman also suggests, Gainsborough's experimentation with broken, 'impressionistic' surfaces may have been intended to give his figures animation in the eye of the visitor strolling across the spacious showroom. Importantly, she argues that 'The Blue Boy' was painted in 1766 - not in 1770, as has been thought - in order to publicise his new studio in The Circus, and that the boy is not, in fact, Jonathan Buttall, more likely his studio assistant.

Two chapters study how the Dutch-style realism of the Suffolk landscapes became a poetic 'landscape of the imagination', a unique style whose development is partly explained by Bath's dual identity as a satellite of London during the winter and a contemplative country town in the summer. Despite his protestations against bookishness, his awareness of contemporary theory has long been exposed; Sloman adds that he was sharing ideas with a local circle of avant-garde intellectuals including Richard Graves and Daniel Webb: 'Gainsborough's art was the catalyst for the Picturesque.' Riding side by side with the teenage Uvedale Price his observations of reedy ponds, quarried rocks and rough pathways explain Price's praise of 'roughness and variety' which would appear in his influential 'Essay on the Picturesque'. Retracing these rural rides, we also learn that the gipsies, colliers and woodcutters are realistic depictions of figures in the local economy. The sullen beauty riding a pony in an elegant shawl in 'Peasants and Colliers Going to Market' is not a 'fancy' figure: it was the local custom for the prettiest girl in the village to serve the fruit and vegetables. She would visit the hairdresser and change her clothes before appearing at the market stalls outside Gainsborough's house in Abbey Street.

If the book has a fault it is that many points of proof might have been placed in the footnotes, and perhaps the bawdiness of Gainsborough's world is absent; Robert Craggs, the subject of the first Bath masterpiece, was the winner of a House of Commons competition to see who could spit the furthest into the rows of MPs in front. What is certain, however - and I should declare an interest as Susan Sloman guest-curated the exhibition of Gainsborough and his rivals at the Holburne Museum, Bath, where I work - is that she combines outstanding research and insight with the ability to inspire fondness for the artist, a rare quality shared with the greatest of Gainsborough scholars, John Hayes. Some writers' analyses, however clever, have buried his lovability under the weight of contextual references obtained in university libraries; Hayes made the reader fall in love with a genius as moody, impetuous and alive as the wind and sunshine gusting through his landscape sketches.

Finishing this book in the early evening, I jumped on my bicycle and cycled out into the river valley to the west of Bath. As the woods hanging above the weir at Warleigh melted into greens and blacks, and as a man burned branches beside a deep, shadowy lane, Gainsborough's landscape was suddenly alive again. Above the weir is 'Gainsborough's Table', a rock where he is said to have spread his bread and cheese while on sketching excursions; with this outstanding book, Sloman deserves a place at the artist's elbow.