The English artist Thomas Gainsborough excelled both in portraiture and landscape, though he is best remembered for his individual portraits and informal groups of high society. One of his famous works, Mr and Mrs Andrews, was painted early on in his career, but the bulk of his paintings belong to his stay at the fashionable resort of Bath, beginning in 1760. On moving to London in 1774 he became a favourite at court, producing portraits of the king and queen, and spending some time on royal commissions at Windsor. His work was influenced by the French rococo artists -
THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH 1727 -
xxxxxThe career of the English painter Thomas Gainsborough took off with a vengeance soon after he settled down in the fashionable resort of Bath in 1760. Within a few years he was one of the country’s best known and admired portrait artists, rivaling the great English painter Joshua Reynolds for his flattering, elegant portrayal of members of the aristocracy -
xxxxxHe was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, the son of a cloth merchant, and attended the local grammar school. Here his artistic talent was quickly recognised, and at the age of 13 he was sent to London to work at St. Martin’s Lane Academy under the tutelage of the French painter and engraver Hubert Gravelot (1699-
xxxxxA marked change in his fortunes came when he moved to Bath in 1760, then at the height of its popularity as a spa for “taking the water”, and the place where anybody who was anybody felt they had to be seen. Such was the demand for his graceful family “snapshots” in high society, or portraits of men of distinction and ladies of fashion, that within six years he was able to move to a highly desirable residence near to the Royal Crescent. He mixed in musical and theatrical circles, and it was from here he found time to make visits to country estates in the west country. It was at the Earl of Pembroke’s country home at Wilton, Wiltshire, for example, that he saw a fine collection of portraits by Van Dyke and was clearly influenced by the Flemish master’s elegance and more formal style. And from Bath he also made frequent visits to London. Here he was made a founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts -
Richard “Beau” Nash,
Richard Wilson and
John Robert Cozens
xxxxxTwo years after Gainsborough moved to Bath, the death occurred of the English dandy Richard “Beau” Nash (1674-
xxxxxThen, the streets having been cleared of beggars and thieves, a polished code of conduct was introduced whereby the affluent, refined members of society who visited the spa could spend a pleasure-
xxxxxUnfortunately, Nash made the bulk of his not inconsiderable income from organising the gambling, so that when the Gaming Act of 1739 came in, banning such activity, he was badly affected. Thus by the time Gainsborough arrived in 1760, Nash was not only quite old, but also quite poor. He died two years later, surrounded by the grandeur and opulence he had done so much to create.
xxxxxThe English dandy Richard “Beau” Nash (1674-
xxxxxAs a portraitist, he was skilful in capturing the likeness and character of his sitters, and he possessed a remarkable talent for creating around his figures a casual air of refinement and good taste. He achieved this, above all, by the use of fresh, cool colours thinly applied, a very good eye for elegant and fashionable clothing, and the choice of a natural, idyllic setting, be it a woodland glade or the extensive grounds of a family estate. Striking examples are, The Blue Boy (illustrated below), Mary, Countess Howe, and The Morning Walk (in the National Gallery, London). Viewed together, these portraits depict the hallmarks of a privileged society, composed, self-
xxxxxIn his day, and even today, Gainsborough is principally known for his portraits but, in fact, he much preferred to paint landscapes, only concentrating on portraiture because the money was so good. Indeed, following the Dutch example, he was one of the first British artists to paint realistic rather than imaginative landscape scenes. The Harvest Wagon and The Market Cart are perhaps his best known works, but illustrated here is his Pool in the Woods. Forest scenes like these, or rough, broken countryside provide his usual subject matter. His Cornard Wood and The Watering Place can be seen in the National Gallery, London. In addition, a number of his portraits have landscape settings which can stand on their own merit. This is best seen in his early work Mr and Mrs Andrews (illustrated above), where the background of rolling farmland shares equal merit with the brilliant double portrait. His wooded landscapes clearly show the influence of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens -
xxxxxGainsborough was one of the most versatile English painters, being accomplished in both portraiture and landscape. In addition, he left hundreds of etchings and drawings in a variety of mediums, the majority of them concerned with his love of landscape. The viewer might feel that his paintings in both genre are tinged with what has been described as a “poetic melancholy”, seen earlier, for example, in the works of the French rococo painter Watteau. His portraits and his woodland scenes sometimes appear too calm and too composed for comfort. The feeling of unease was justified. As we shall see, within a few years nearly the whole of Europe was to be alarmed by the French Revolution, and then engulfed by the Napoleonic Wars. Gainsborough escaped such trauma. He died a year before the French Revolution broke out, and was buried in Kew churchyard.
xxxxxIncidentally, the story goes that his portrait of The Blue Boy -
xxxxx...... Whilst he and Reynolds were professional rivals over many years, both had respect for each other’s ability. Following the death of Gainsborough, Reynolds used his Fourteenth Discourse at the Royal Academy to pay tribute to his fellow artist.
xxxxxThe Welsh painter Richard Wilson (1714-
xxxxxA landscape artist of this time who, like Gainsborough, influenced the English artists Turner and Constable, was the Welsh painter Richard Wilson (1714-
xxxxxWilson was born in the village of Penegoes in North Wales where his father was the rector. As a teenager he studied under Thomas Wright, a London portraitist, and in the early part of his career he achieved some success in producing society portraits, including the two young sons of the Prince of Wales. It was during this period that he painted his portrait of Flora Macdonald (of Bonnie Prince Charlie fame) soon after she was released from prison in 1747. His early works as a landscape artist included a pair of pictures for the new Foundling Hospital, donated under a charitable scheme organised by William Hogarth. One was of the hospital itself, and the companion piece was of St. George’s Hospital. It was soon after this that he went on his Grand Tour.
xxxxxAfter his long stay in Italy, where, as we have seen, he had already begun his career as a landscape artist, he returned to London in 1756 and settled in new and grand premises in Covent Garden. Becoming a founder member of the Society of Artists three years later, he was not short of work. Then in 1768 he was one of the 34 founder members of the Royal Academy, and entered a circle of friends which included the actor David Garrick and the two writers Samuel Johnson and Lawrence Sterne. At first he enjoyed a deal of success and his paintings of this period included his dramatic picture of the Welsh mountain Cader Idris (illustrated), produced around 1774 (now in the Tate Gallery, London) and his serene Snowden from Llyn Nantile. Imagination played a part in their composition, but in both he created a feeling of grandeur and spatial depth, obtained in large part by his clever handling of light. Among English landscapes are his Thames near Twickenham, his romantic ruin, The Keep of Okehampton Castle (Devon) and five views of Wilton House (Wiltshire) in which the composition and colouring are very reminiscent of the works of Claude Lorrain. (It was at Wilton House that Gainsborough saw and studied a collection of paintings by Van Dyck).
xxxxxTowards the end of the 1760s, however, Wilson began to lose some of his old patrons. Competitors with a lighter touch proved more popular than the somewhat brooding, classical style. And Wilson himself was, as someone put it, like an olive, “rough to the taste at first”. At one time he even quarrelled with the king for criticising two views of Kew Gardens which he had painted for him. To drown his sorrows he took to drink, and his work went further into decline. Towards the end of his life he struggled to make ends meet, sometimes lacking enough money to buy his materials. In 1776 he took the post of librarian at the Royal Academy to bring in a little money. Eventually he returned to Wales where relatives cared for him until his sudden death in 1782.
xxxxxAnother landscape artist worthy of note is the London-
xxxxxWhilst on the subject of landscapes, mention must be made of the London-
xxxxxShown below are three works from his travels in Italy (left to right): A Shepherd’s Hut between Naples and Portici, A ruined fort near Salerno, and Lake Nemi in the Lazio Region.
xxxxxSadly, Cozens became insane in 1793, and remained so for the remainder of his life. During his illness he was cared for by the London art patron Dr Thomas Monro, for whom both Girtin and Turner had worked as students.