Birthplace: Sudbury, Suffolk, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: Cancer - unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Anne Churchyard, Kew, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Portrait and landscape painter
English painter, one of the greatest masters of the English school in portraiture, and only less so in landscape, was born at Sudbury, Suffolk, in the spring of 1727. His father, who carried on the business of a woollen crape-maker in that town, was of a respectable character and family, and was noted for his skill in fencing; his mother excelled in flower-painting, and encouraged her son in the use of the pencil. There were nine children of the marriage, two of the painter's brothers being of a very ingenious turn.
At ten years old, Gainsborough "had sketched every fine tree and picturesque cottage near Sudbury", and at fourteen, having filled his task books with caricatures of his schoolmaster, and sketched the portrait of a man whom he had detected on the watch for robbing his father's orchard, he was allowed to follow the bent of his genius in London, with some instruction in etching from Gravelot, and under such advantages as Hayman, the historical painter, and the academy in St. Martin's Lane could afford. Three years of study in the metropolis, where he did some modelling and a few landscapes, were succeeded by two years in the country. Here he fell in love with Margaret Burr, a young lady of many charms, including an annuity of £200, married her after painting her portrait, and a short courtship, and, at the age of twenty, became a householder in Ipswich, his rent being £6 a year. The annuity was reported to come from Margaret's real (not her putative) father, who was one of the exiled Stuart princes or else the duke of Bedford. She was sister of a young man employed by Gainsborough's father as a traveller. At Ipswich, Gainsborough tells us, he was "chiefly in the face-way"; his sitters were not so numerous as to prevent him from often rambling with his friend Joshua Kirby (president of the Society of Artists) on the banks of the Orwell, from painting many landscapes with an attention to details which his later works never exhibited, or from joining a musical club and entertaining himself and his fellow townsmen by giving concerts. As he advanced in years he became ambitious of advancing in reputation. Bath was then the general resort of wealth and fashion, and to that city, towards the close of the year 1759, he removed with his wife and two daughters, the only issue of their marriage. His studio in the circus was soon thronged with visitors; he gradually raised his price for a half-length portrait from 5 to 40 guineas, and for a whole-length from 8 to 100 guineas; and he rapidly developed beyond the comparatively plain and hum-drum quality of his Ipswich paintings. Among his sitters at this period were the authors Laurence Sterne and Samuel Richardson, and the actors Quin, Henderson and Garrick. Meanwhile he contributed both portraits and landscapes to the annual exhibitions in London. He indulged his taste for music by learning to play the viol-di-gamba, the harp, the hautboy, the violoncello. His house harbored Italian, German, French and English musicians. He haunted the green-room of Palmer's theater, and painted gratuitously the portraits of many of the actors: he constantly gave away his sketches and landscapes. In the summer of 1774, having already attained a position of great prosperity, he took his departure for London, and fixed his residence at Schomberg House, Pall Mall, a noble mansion still standing, for a part of which the artist paid £300 a year.
Gainsborough had not been many months in London before he received a summons to the palace, and to the end of his career he divided with Benjamin West the favor of the court, and with Joshua Reynolds the favor of the town. Sheridan, Burke, Johnson, Franklin, Canning, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Sarah Siddons, Clive, Blackstone, Hurd, were among the number of those who sat to him. But in London as in Bath his landscapes were exhibited, were commended, and were year after year returned to him, "till they stood", says Sir William Beechey, "ranged in long lines from his hall to his painting-room." Gainsborough was a member of the Royal Academy, one of the original 36 elected in 1768; but in 1784, being dissatisfied with the position assigned on the exhibition walls to his portrait of the three princesses, he withdrew that and his other pictures, and he never afterwards exhibited there. Even before this he had taken no part in the business of the Institution. After seceding he got up an exhibition in his own house, not successfully. In February 1788, while witnessing the trial of Warren Hastings, he felt an extraordinary chill at the back of his neck; this was the beginning of a cancer which proved fatal on the 2nd of August of the same year. He lies buried at Kew.
Gainsborough was tall, fair and handsome, generous, impulsive to the point of capriciousness, easily irritated, not of bookish likings, a lively talker, good at repartee. He was a most thorough embodiment of the artistic temperament; delighting in nature and "the look of things", insatiable in working, fond of music and the theater hardly less than of painting -- a warm, rich personality, to whom severe principle was perhaps as foreign as deliberate wrong-doing. The property which he left at his death was not large. One of his daughters, Mary, had married the musician Fischer contrary to his wishes, and was subject to fits of mental aberration. The other daughter, Margaret, died unmarried. Mrs. Gainsborough, an extremely sweet-tempered woman, survived her husband ten years. There is a pretty anecdote that Gainsborough, if he ever had a tiff with her, would write a pacifying note, confiding it to his dog Fox, who delivered it to the lady's pet spaniel Tristram. The note was worded as in the person of Fox to Tristram, and Mrs. Gainsborough replied in the best of humors, as from Tristram to Fox.
Gainsborough and Reynolds rank side by side as the greatest portrait painters of the English school. They were at variance; but Gainsborough on his deathbed sought and obtained a reconciliation. It is difficult to say which stands the higher of the two, although Reynolds may claim to have worked with a nearer approach to even and demonstrable excellence. In grace, spirit, and lightness of insight and of touch, Gainsborough is peculiarly eminent. His handling was slight for the most part, and somewhat arbitrary, but in a high degree masterly; and his landscapes and rustic compositions are not less gifted than his portraits. Among his finest works are portraits of "Lady Ligonier", "Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire", "Master Buttall (the Blue Boy)", "Mrs. Sheridan and Mrs. Tickell", "Orpin, the parish clerk" (National Gallery), "the Hon. Mrs. Graham" (Scottish National Gallery), his own portrait (Royal Academy), "Mrs. Siddons" (National Gallery); also "the Cottage Door", "the Market Cart", "the Return from Harvest", "the Woodman and his Dog in a Storm" (destroyed by fire), and "Waggon and Horses passing a Brook" (National Gallery -- this was a favorite with its painter). He made a vast number of drawings and sketches.
A few observations may be added: (1) as to individual works by Gainsborough, and (2) as to his general characteristics as a painter.
Two of his first portraits, executed when he was settled at Ipswich, were separate likenesses of Mr. and Mrs. Hingeston. His first great hit was made at Bath with a portrait of Lord Nugent. With a likeness of Mr. Poyntz, 1762, we find a decided advance in artistic type, and his style became fixed towards 1768. The date of the "Blue Boy" is somewhat uncertain: most accounts name 1779, but perhaps 1770 is nearer the mark. This point is not without interest for dilettanti; because it is said that Gainsborough painted the picture with a view to confuting a dictum of Reynolds, to the effect that blue was a color unsuitable for the main light of a work. But, if the picture was produced before 1778, the date of Reynolds's dictum, this long-cherished and often-repeated tradition must be given up. A full-length of the duke of Norfolk was perhaps the latest work to which Gainsborough set his hand. His portrait of Elizabeth, duchess of Devonshire, famous for its long disappearance, has aroused much controversy; whether this painting, produced not long after Gainsborough had settled in London, and termed "the Duchess of Devonshire", does really represent that lady, is by no means certain. It was mysteriously stolen in 1876 in London immediately after it had been purchased by Messrs. Agnew at the Wynn Ellis sale at a huge price, and a long time elapsed before it was retraced. The picture was taken to New York, and eventually to Chicago; and in April 1901, through the agency of a man named Pat Sheedy, it was given up to the American detectives working for Messrs. Agnew; it was then sold to J. Pierpont Morgan.
Gainsborough's total output of paintings exceeded 300, including 220 portraits: he also etched at least 18 plates, and 3 in aquatint. At the date of his death 56 paintings remained on hand: these, along with 148 drawings, were then exhibited. In his earlier days he made a practice of copying works by Van Dyck (the object of his more special admiration), Titian, Rubens, Teniers, Hobbema, Claude and some others, but not in a spirit of servile reproduction.
Gainsborough was pre-eminent in that very essential element of portraiture -- truthful likeness. In process of time he advanced in the rendering of immediate expression, while he somewhat receded in general character. He always made his sitters look pleasant, and, after a while, distinguished. Unity of impression is one of the most marked qualities in his work; he seems to have seen his subject as an integer, and he wrought at the various parts of it together, every touch (and very wilful some of his touches look) tending towards the foreseen result. He painted with arrowy speed, more especially in his later years. For portraits he used at times brushes upon sticks 6 feet long; there was but little light in his painting room, and he often worked in the evenings. He kept his landscape work distinct from his portraiture, not ever adding to the latter a fully realized landscape background; his views he never signed or dated -- his likenesses only once or twice. His skies are constantly cloudy, the country represented is rough and broken; the scenes are of a pastoral kind, with an effect generally of coming rain, or else of calm sun-setting. The prevalent feeling of his landscapes is somewhat sad, and to children, whether in subject groups or in portraits, he mostly lent an expression rather plaintive than mirthful. It should be acknowledged that, whether in portraiture or in landscape, the painter's mannerisms of execution increased in process of time -- patchings of the brush, tufty foliage, etc.; some of his portraits are hurried and flimsy, with a minimum of solid content, though not other than artistic in feeling. Here are a few of his axioms: "What makes the difference between man and man is real performance, and not genius or conception." "I dont think it would be more ridiculous for a person to put his nose close to the canvas and say the colors smelt offensive than to say how rough the paint lies, for one is just as material as the other with regard to hurting the effect and drawing of a picture." "The eye is the only perspective-master needed by a landscape painter."
Wife: Margaret Burr (b. 1726. d. 17-Dec-1798, two daughters)
Royal Academy of Arts
Royal Society of Arts
Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile
Copyright ©2019 Soylent Communications