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date: 25 April 2024

Gainsborough, Thomasfree


Gainsborough, Thomasfree

  • Hugh Belsey

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788)

self-portrait, c. 1787

© Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2004

Gainsborough, Thomas (1727–1788), painter and printmaker, was probably born in Sudbury, Suffolk, and was baptized there at the Independent Meeting-House in Friars Street on 14 May 1727, the fifth son and ninth child of John Gainsborough (c.1683–1748), publican, clothier, and postmaster, and his wife, Mary (c.1690–1755), daughter of the Revd Henry Burrough. He attended Sudbury grammar school, where his uncle the Revd Humphrey Burrough was headmaster, and Fulcher refers to stories of him playing truant in order to draw in the fields around the town. Gainsborough's paternal uncle Thomas (1678–1739) bequeathed a total of £30 to his nephew; this must have encouraged him to travel, about 1740, to London, where he stayed with an unidentified silversmith.

Early years

William Hogarth had been taught engraving by a silversmith twenty years before, and Gainsborough may have thought this a natural means of learning his craft; however, the laborious process did not suit his temperament and, although he experimented with the medium in the 1750s, he did not form a serious interest in printmaking until the 1770s. Rather more important were the influence of William Hogarth and Francis Hayman, who were at the centre of so much artistic activity at the time.

Hogarth's revival, in 1735, of the St Martin's Lane Academy, where Hubert-François Gravelot was employed as the drawing-master until 1745, must have provided a framework for Gainsborough's education. It has been said that the young artist helped Gravelot design the decorative surrounds for Jacobus Houbracken's engravings for Heads of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain, though it is difficult to discern his contribution. At St Martin's Lane he would have come into contact with other pupils such as Charles Grignion and Nathaniel Smith, but more importantly he was in the current of artistic discussion and could experiment with his ideas. Under the influence of French draughtsmanship he adopted the use of black and white chalks on coloured (generally blue) paper for his figure drawings. The use of drawings as a means to nurture his hungry visual memory was essential to his development as an artist.

Although Francis Hayman masterminded the decorations for the supper boxes in Vauxhall Gardens commissioned by the enterprising Jonathan Tyers, there is some stylistic evidence that the young Gainsborough had a hand in the decorative scheme. If Gainsborough was involved, the Vauxhall pictures would have provided him with an opportunity to learn more about the techniques of painting and the pecking order of a busy makeshift studio. It has been suggested that one of the paintings, The House of Cards, designed by Gravelot, shows Gainsborough's contribution in at least two of the figures. Similarly Hogarth supervised the scheme for decorating the Court Room at the Foundling Hospital and took the opportunity to raise the profile of history painting by basing the scheme on four large canvases of biblical subjects painted by established artists (Hogarth, Joseph Highmore, Hayman, and the Revd James Wills). In order to promote the work of young landscape painters in the wake of Canaletto's recent visit to Britain, Edward Haytley, Richard Wilson, and Samuel Wale were invited to donate topographical roundels depicting London hospitals. Gainsborough must have been delighted at the invitation to participate. In November 1748 the last to be presented, his view of the Charterhouse hospital, the most accomplished of the group, was installed, and there it remains. Gainsborough approached the commission in a novel way, using an unusual view with great originality and flair. The painting deliberately uses a red rather than a buff ground, which helps it stand out from the others; it has a daring composition that uses a large chimney stack on the right to anchor the design. Its strong lighting, which divides the causeway in the centre, highlights the top of a gateway on the right and a belfry on the left.

Gainsborough's earliest work demonstrates a joy and an ability to use paint similar to that of Hogarth. His ability to describe texture and tone with a clarity of light he may have learned from the landscapes of George Lambert. He may have lodged in London with Hayman (GM, 199), but this apparently did not work out, and by 1744 he was renting rooms from John Jorden in Little Kirby Street, Hatton Garden, where he set up in practice as an independent artist, dividing his time between London and Sudbury. The surviving fragments of a portrait of a boy and girl (Gainsborough's House, Sudbury) of about 1744, despite its defects in anatomy, is exceptional in its energy and skilful handling of paint. This portrait's ambitious scale gave way to painting small-scale full-length portraits (conversation pieces) and landscapes. The latter, which sometimes have a topographical basis at this date, combine extraordinary powers of observation with an intense ability to interpret the play of light on the landscape. Like the fragmentary portrait in Sudbury, however, the larger canvases, for example, divide up into well-rehearsed sections, and Gainsborough is less able to manage larger compositions such as Cornard Wood (c.1748; National Gallery, London; Hayes, Landscape, no. 17). They demonstrate the influence of Dutch seventeenth-century artists such as Jan Wynants. Similarly Gainsborough had probably encountered the work of Jacob van Ruisdael in the London auction rooms and copied in chalk his La forêt (c.1660; Louvre, Paris, deposited at Musée de Douai; Gainsborough's copy, 1746–7; Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester). Gainsborough's proven ability as a landscapist encouraged other artists to collaborate with him. A documented example is Francis Hayman's portrait of the Bedford children (1746; priv. coll.), and stylistic evidence points to similar collaborative ventures with Gravelot in his Couple in the Park (c.1746; Louvre, Paris) and with Joshua Kirby, an Ipswich drawing-master, in his topographical view of St Mary's Church, Hadleigh (priv. coll.; Hayes, Landscape, no. 28), commissioned by the Revd Dr Thomas Tanner about 1748.

Marriage; return to Suffolk

In 1746 Margaret Burr (c.1728–1798) became pregnant by Gainsborough and on 15 July of that year they married in the clandestine chapel of St George's, Curzon Street, London. An illegitimate daughter of Henry, third duke of Beaufort, Margaret was provided with a settlement of £200 per annum. The young couple moved out of lodgings and took a house in Little Kirby Street, London. Their first child, Mary, is shown in a family group by Gainsborough (1748?; National Gallery, London) shortly before she died. She was buried on 1 March 1748 at St Andrew's, Holborn. In Sudbury, Gainsborough's father died on 29 October 1748; the rate accounts show that the artist moved to the town early the following spring, by which time he seems to have been renting a house in Friars Street from a cousin. Soon afterwards two more daughters were born in Sudbury: Mary, baptized on 3 February 1750 at All Saints', Sudbury, and Margaret, baptized on 22 August 1751 at St Gregory's, Sudbury.

Away from the artistic crucible of London, Gainsborough's style became more relaxed and he was able to impose overall design on excessive detail. The double portrait Mr and Mrs Andrews (c.1750; National Gallery, London) includes an accurate topographical view of the Stour valley from the Auberies, the couple's estate situated 2 miles to the south-west of Sudbury. Aesthetically the portrait was his greatest achievement to date. The balance of colour, the complex cloudscape, and the way in which the trees part in the centre to reveal the church of All Saints, Sudbury, where the couple married on 10 November 1748, produce a perfectly balanced composition. It is tempting to interpret the unusual use of topography and the exceptional quality of the painting as the product of particular demands placed on the artist by the sitters.

About 1752 Gainsborough rented a house from Mrs Raffe in Foundation Street, Ipswich. The town offered greater intellectual stimulus than Sudbury, with a town library, a musical club (Gainsborough was an active member), lively theological discussion, and an argumentative political life. Ipswich provided more opportunity for commissions. Although he continued to paint a number of conversation pieces, notably the Gravenor Family (c.1754; Yale U. CBA), the genre lost its appeal for Gainsborough and he soon began to concentrate on painting uncompromising head-and-shoulders portraits. These experiments honed his ability to paint a good likeness which, in his own words, was 'the principal beauty & intention of a portrait' (Letters, 90). They satisfied a conservative clientele and served as a valuable means of learning the craft of a portraitist. Occasionally Gainsborough added a landscape background to vary the limitations of the design. Privately, unrestricted by the expectation of his patrons, he was able to indicate the extent of his ambition and talent in exceptional portraits such as The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (c.1756; National Gallery, London), which, in its sensitivity and rapid technique, ranks as one of the most remarkable paintings of the eighteenth century. Among his best landscapes from the period are the two commissioned by John, fourth duke of Bedford (1755; Hayes, Landscape, nos. 50 and 51), which are remarkable in their high finish and in the relative importance of the figures. At least one of the Bedford landscapes was painted as an overmantel, and many other landscapes from the 1750s, such as that formerly in the Howe collection (Hayes, Landscape, no. 62), are of unusual proportions which probably indicate their original location in prescribed architectural settings. The style of the paintings had changed too. Instead of a tightly knit verisimilitude, they had become a more imaginative amalgam of elements arranged so that (as he put it) 'a Picture [is] like the first part of a Tune that you can guess what follows, and that makes the second part of the Tune' (Letters, 71). It was possibly with the encouragement of Joshua Kirby and the engravers Thomas Major and Joseph Wood that Gainsborough learned to etch. With the help of Wood he contributed an illustration to Kirby's Dr Brook Taylor's Method of Perspective Made Easy, published in Ipswich in 1754. However, the laborious technique tried his patience, and from that date there remains only one other complete print, Philip Thicknesse's Cottage, and a more complex but incomplete plate, The Suffolk Plough (Hayes, Landscape, no. 39). Another, The Gipsies (Hayes, Printmaker, no. 2), known in several states, was eventually finished by Wood and proved a popular success.

Move to Bath

In autumn 1758 Gainsborough, perhaps to address the financial problems which beset him in the mid-1750s, felt sufficiently pleased with his development to search for work further afield. Showing considerable confidence, and charging 5 guineas a head, he moved to Bath, where his arrival was recorded in the Bath Advertizer (7 Oct 1758). There he painted the portraits George Bussy, Viscount Villiers and William Villiers, 3rd Earl of Jersey (depicting Bussy's father; both priv. colls.), and by the time he painted Mr and Mrs William Lee (priv. coll.) in April 1759, he had raised his price to 8 guineas for a head-and-shoulders portrait. Having tested the market, he felt the journey had been worth while, and returned to Ipswich; there he sold the contents of his studio and Mrs Raffe advertised for a new tenant. With his family Gainsborough moved to Bath and rented a large house owned by the duke of Kingston in Abbey Street. The seven-year renewable lease was signed on 24 June 1760. The size of the house enabled Gainsborough to provide a home for his family, to diversify and take in lodgers, and arrange a studio and a showroom. Eventually Gainsborough's sister, Mrs Mary Gibbons, took over a portion of the building and complemented the artist's studio with a millinery shop. Recently discovered evidence suggests that the portrait of the amateur musician Ann Ford (1760; Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio) was painted to display in the ‘Shew’ room. Apparently Gainsborough painted it as an outstanding advertisement to display his special abilities. He chose a sitter well known not only through her liaison with Lord Jersey but also as a result of her public musical performances, an unladylike activity which caused much comment. Gainsborough employed an unusual and dramatic pose for a woman that was intended to show off his skill in painting drapery. Mary Delany in a letter dated 23 October 1760 remarked that she would have been 'very sorry to have any one I loved set forth in such a manner' (The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany, ed. Lady Llanover, 1861, 3.605). While the painting shares the ambition of his Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, it lacks the latter's eloquence of composition.

In 1761 Gainsborough sent the portrait Sir Guy Nugent (priv. coll., on loan to the Holburne Museum of Art, Bath) to the second exhibition of the Society of Artists in London. Nugent's confident pose sitting before a window was repeated, less successfully, in several other male portraits produced by Gainsborough in the early 1760s. Slightly later in the decade, perhaps after he had visited Wilton House near Salisbury in 1764, he painted a series of female portraits employing the pose of Lady Anne Sophia Herbert from Van Dyck's huge Pembroke Family at Wilton House. The best of them is Lady Carr (c.1764; Yale U. CBA).

Bath provided Gainsborough with artistic companionship, a constantly changing source of wealthy and leisured clients, easy access to print dealers, and remarkable collections of paintings near the city. He was nervous about composing figure groups and full-length portraits, and several figurative compositions from the period are rehearsed in preparatory drawings. For instance, the sketches of his great friend the viola da gamba player Carl Friedrich Abel (c.1762; NPG) and the Portrait of the Artist's Daughters (c.1763; Gainsborough's House, Sudbury) are adapted in the finished oil portraits (NPG and Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, respectively). The surviving preparatory sketches must represent only a small proportion of what once existed, for the early years of the decade were exceptionally busy. Commissions included the portrait of Sir William St Quintin (priv. coll.), who proved a friend as well as a generous patron; the vast portrait George Byam and his Wife Louisa (Andrew Brownsword Foundation, on loan to the Holburne Museum of Art, Bath), to which Gainsborough added their daughter Selina in 1766; the portrait of the actor James Quin (exh. Society of Artists, 1763; NG Ire.), which like the portrait of Ann Ford was perhaps painted for Gainsborough's ‘Shew’ room; and Dr Rice Charlton (exh. Society of Artists, 1764; Holburne Museum of Art, Bath). A series of full-length portraits of women charts the swift progress in his work in the early 1760s: Lady Alston (c.1762; Louvre, Paris), Lady Howe (1762; Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London), and Mrs Portman (c.1764; priv. coll.) demonstrate how Gainsborough was able to overcome the compositional awkwardness that concerned him in his earliest works in Bath.

Gainsborough continued to paint landscapes, though in smaller numbers, as portrait commissions took priority. He appears to have been friendly with those of a tory persuasion, perhaps reflecting his wife's links with the Beaufort family. The Prices of Foxley, Herefordshire, counted among Gainsborough's sitters, as did Coplestone Warr Bampfylde of Hestercombe House, Kingston, Somerset, whose interest in garden design may have helped Gainsborough reassess his approach to landscape painting and further distance him from any residual interest in topography. The influence at this time of a succession of great old-master painters such as Rubens, Claude, and Gaspard Dughet made this an experimental period for Gainsborough. The influence of the heavily wooded landscapes of Dughet is evident in the painting at Worcester Art Museum, there entitled A Grand Landscape (exh. Society of Artists, 1763?; Hayes, Landscape, no. 80); the St Quintin landscape (1766; priv. coll.; Hayes, Landscape, no. 87) is closer to Rubens, while Harvest Waggon (exh. Society of Artists, 1767; Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham; Hayes, Landscape, no. 88) has an openness more akin to the work of Claude.

In autumn 1763 Gainsborough became ill from overwork, and the situation was compounded by his anxiety about venereal disease which he may have contracted during visits to London. His illness was so severe that the Bath Journal (17 Oct 1763) reported his death, but, after being, as Gainsborough himself put it, 'kept [in] my Bed 5 weeks … of a most terrible Fever', he recovered (Letters, 22). This health scare made him take stock and he decided that he should move to a house 'about three quarters of a Mile in the Lansdown Road' but retain the 'House in the Smoake' for his painting and 'shew' room, and he took a second lease in 1767 (ibid., 23). In 1768 he became the first tenant of a house in the newly built Royal Circus. He continued to respond to the stream of visitors requesting portraits throughout the 1760s, and raised his prices again, this time to 20 guineas a head, 40 for a half-length, and (presumably) 80 for a full-length. He worked hard and played hard. Among his friends were the actor David Garrick, James Unwin (the agent who secured his wife's annuity from the Beaufort estate), and the musician Samuel Linley. (Linley was born at the duke of Beaufort's house at Badminton, Gloucestershire, a circumstance that may have facilitated his friendship with the painter.) William Jackson, from 1777 organist at Exeter Cathedral, was also a friend, but Gainsborough's heavy drinking led to their estrangement. Occasionally a commission would require special attention. Great care was taken with the series of portraits of the duke of Bedford's family (1764–5, 1769; Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). In 1764 the demands of General Honywood's equestrian portrait (Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida) led to Gainsborough's visiting Wilton House to draw horses, presumably those trained in dressage. (As noted this visit would have given him the opportunity to study the Van Dyck portraits there.) Following the success of his portrait of George Pitt (Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio) at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1769, in the next year he travelled to Stratfield Saye in Hampshire to paint his host's daughter and son-in-law, Lord and Lady Ligonier (Hunt. L.). In 1771 he travelled to Wootton Lodge in Staffordshire to see his friend and correspondent James Unwin, and two years later he visited Longford Castle, Wiltshire, to paint a series of portraits of the Bouverie family, where he would have seen a varied collection of paintings including works by Teniers (which he had already copied), Van Dyck, and Claude.

Royal Academician

The political manoeuvrings which led to the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in December 1768 and the resulting marginalization of his friend Joshua Kirby must have been upsetting for Gainsborough. None the less, he accepted the invitation to become a founder Royal Academician and submitted two of his greatest works to the first exhibition in May 1769 [see Founders of the Royal Academy of Arts]. George Rivers, later Lord Pitt (Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio) and Isabella, Viscountess Molyneaux, later Countess of Sefton (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) 'in elegance must have conquered everything else in the exhibition' (Waterhouse, First Royal Academy exhibition, 946). By 1770 Gainsborough had united in his portraiture the realism first seen in the head-and-shoulders likenesses painted during his Ipswich years with a bravura technique and elegant grandeur learned so well from Van Dyck. There were few academicians living outside London, and it was important that his work was seen to compete with that of his rivals based in the more competitive environment of the capital.

Several contemporary commentators noted that Gainsborough made model landscapes, fashioned out of broccoli, mirrors, and coal, from which to draw. His landscape drawings had now become studies in balanced composition, reflections of a rural idyll rather than real representations of a given place. For Gainsborough they were like his music-making, a form of relaxation. Correspondence with Lord Mulgrave and the artist's friend William Jackson shows that he shared his gift for drawing and was keen to discuss new graphic techniques that obviously fascinated him. In a letter to Lord Mulgrave dated 13 February 1772 he says, 'Methinks I would fain have you join a little Drawing to your valuable accomplishments … I am sure I shall be proud of being your Master' (Letters, 94). He appears to have acted as an informal tutor to a number of amateur artists including his daughters and, in the 1780s, members of the royal family.

About 1770 Gainsborough began to explore new subject matter in his landscapes. Going to Market (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London; Hayes, Landscape, no. 95), dating from the late 1760s, includes a group of peasant women gathered round a cottage door with a group of horsemen riding off to market in the morning light. Nostalgic admiration for simplicity of life pervades the work. Some scholars have interpreted the cottage dwellers, market traders, and beggars as illustrating the different levels of rural poverty which had been exacerbated by recent enclosures of common land for farming. Similar sentiments are reflected in the poetry of Oliver Goldsmith and William Shenstone written towards the end of the decade. In other works such as the mixed-media landscape of travellers begging at the door of a nobleman's house of about 1772 (Indianapolis Museum of Art; Hayes, Landscape, no. 99), Gainsborough anticipates the subject matter of the ‘fancy’ pictures he produced during the next decade. This is just one interpretation of his work which has challenged the common theory that Gainsborough, as a natural genius and an artist who spurned foreign travel, was unaffected by the work of earlier artists or contemporary aesthetic theories.

In the early 1770s, under the presidency of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the character and future direction of the Royal Academy developed. Each annual exhibition had a growing number of exhibitors, inevitably leading to crowded hanging conditions in the exhibition room as well as a strong competitiveness among the exhibitors. The president's discourses delivered to the academy's students did much to define the canon of subject matter, but despite this academic encouragement history painting largely failed to attract patrons. Commissions for portraiture continued to dominate. Another of Gainsborough's show pictures, the portrait perhaps of Jonathan Buttall (known as 'The Blue Boy', Hunt. L.), was exhibited at the academy in 1770. It has been argued that Gainsborough's dominant use of blue in the painting was in direct opposition to the view that Reynolds later expressed in his eighth discourse of 1778, where he wrote that 'blue [should be] used only to support and set off … warm colours; and for this purpose, a small proportion of cold colour will be sufficient' (Discourses on Art, 158). The portrait is undoubtedly also the most overt homage paid by Gainsborough to Van Dyck, an artist he was anxious to emulate in opposition to Reynolds's admiration for the Italian school. This would appear to be at odds with his disdain, expressed in a letter to Lord Dartmouth, about 'the foolish custom of Painters dressing people like scaramouches, and expecting the likeness to appear' (Letters, 90). With the exhibition in 1771 of the Ligonier portraits (Hunt. L.), which make visual sense only when hung as a pair, and the dashing portrait Captain Wade (Bath City Council), which was shown in the same year and presented by the artist to the newly built Assembly Rooms in Bath (in situ), Gainsborough was yet again emphasizing his strengths and pointing out the very obvious differences between his work and that of Reynolds. Certain of his worth, he increased his prices further to 30, 60, and 100 guineas, and on 14 January 1772 he took his nephew Gainsborough Dupont as an apprentice. In the same year, like Nathaniel Dance, he failed to be included in Johann Zoffany's group portrait Academicians in the Life Class of the Royal Academy (Royal Collection), and in the following year a disagreement with the academy led to his refusal to exhibit there.

Move to London

The lease expired on the duke of Kingston's house in Abbey Street in Bath in summer 1774, and there is some evidence that portrait commissions were also waning, perhaps because of Gainsborough's recent increase in prices. He was falling out of sympathy with Bath and had become, according to the Irish artist John Warren, 'uncommonly rude & uncivil to artists in general, & was even haughty to his employers, which with his proud prices caus'd him to settle in London' (McEvansoneya, 165). These were all factors which, coupled with developments at the academy, contributed to his decision to move to London. From midsummer 1774 he rented the western third of Schomberg House in Pall Mall. Shortly afterwards he built a two-storey building in the garden which provided him with a studio and a showroom. With his move to London, Gainsborough reassessed his position, particularly as regards the Royal Academy. Through his friendship with Joshua Kirby he gained access to the court, and was quick to realize the influence of the press. Sir Henry Bate (later Bate-Dudley), the proprietor of the Morning Chronicle, became a friend and supporter. Perhaps the first notice he wrote in support of Gainsborough is that dated April 1775: 'The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester [recte Cumberland] are often going to a famous painters in Pall Mall; and 'tis reported that he is now doing both their pictures.' The duke and duchess had already sat to Reynolds for portraits that had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773. The date of Bate's report, timed to appear just before the opening of the 1775 exhibition, was designed to fuel rivalry between the two artists and suggests a change in preference in the taste of the Cumberlands. About the same time Gainsborough was painting the ravishing portrait The Hon. Mrs Graham (NG Scot.).

Nathaniel Dance, who had known Gainsborough since the 1740s and who too had withdrawn from the academy, persuaded Gainsborough to exhibit there again in 1777, and he responded by showing an outstanding group of paintings including the portraits of the duke and duchess of Cumberland, already noted (Royal Collection), Carl Friedrich Abel (Hunt. L.), The Hon. Mrs Graham, and The Watering Place (National Gallery, London; Hayes, Landscape, no. 117) which Horace Walpole described in his copy of the catalogue (priv. coll.) as 'By far the finest Landscape ever painted in England'. One critic, whose remarks must have pleased Gainsborough greatly, commented that ''Tis hard to say which Branch of the Art Mr. Gainsborough most excels, Landscape or Portrait painting' (Public Advertiser, 26 April 1777). He continued to court the press. Bate founded the Morning Post in 1780 and to underline the relationship between the new proprietor and the artist Gainsborough exhibited Bate's portrait (priv. coll., on loan to Tate Britain) at the Royal Academy exhibition that year.

Gainsborough also found time to make prints. His fascination with new techniques encouraged him to explore a combination of soft-ground etching and aquatint, both of which had only recently been discovered. His reasons for expending so much time on printmaking, which provided no income, remain unclear though he evidently admired the technique of imitating chalk lines with soft-ground etching and wash with aquatint. In 1780 he completed three prints that were inscribed with a publication date. The publication of these large soft-ground etchings with aquatint was aborted for some unknown reason. Michael Rosenthal has argued that the subjects of the three prints were selected to demonstrate the variety of his landscape work (Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough, 258–62).

There was some diversity in his subject matter, and in 1781 Gainsborough submitted rather more varied works to the Royal Academy. In 1781 and 1783 he exhibited seascapes (priv. coll. and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) which brought a fresh energy to his work. In 1781 he also exhibited King George III and Queen Charlotte (both Royal Collection), which became the successors to the state portraits painted twenty years earlier by Allan Ramsay. The portraits of the monarch and his consort provided Gainsborough's nephew Gainsborough Dupont with a welcome opportunity to supplement his living by making numerous copies of them.

'Fancy pictures'

The landscape theme to which Gainsborough continually returned was the cottage door, a motif first seen in the background of Going to Market (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London) painted some ten years earlier. The Cottage Door with Children Playing (exh. RA, 1778; Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio; Hayes, Landscape, no. 121) is perhaps the most narrative representation of the theme with a mother caring for a group of wild children at the door of a hovel while the father provides for the basic needs of the group with bundles of sticks for cooking. Two years later the upright version, The Cottage Door (Hunt. L.; Hayes, Landscape, no. 123) was shown at the Royal Academy. Here there are fewer children. The figures are of a degree of beauty at odds with their humble origins and the wooded splendour of their surroundings almost consumes the humble cottage. They represent a noble, honest simplicity of rural living.

In 1781 Gainsborough exhibited A Shepherd (dest.), which one critic described as 'equal to any picture produced by any modern artist; and superior to most' (Morning Chronicle, 28 April – 1 May 1781, 416). It shows a beleaguered shepherd boy with his dog sheltering from lightning. Gainsborough commissioned Richard Earlom to make a mezzotint of it in an attempt to exploit its critical success. The inspiration for the image came from the work of the Spanish painter Murillo, and it provided a new form of subject picture which, in a posthumous description by Reynolds, was described as a 'Fancy picture', a term which may have been intended to have pejorative overtones. The purpose of a 'fancy picture' was to elicit a response, a ‘sensibility’, in the beholder. The idea had developed from Gainsborough's landscape of the early 1770s, already mentioned, in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, showing travellers begging at the door of a house, and the same sentiment is most clearly expressed in Charity Relieving Distress (priv. coll.) exhibited at Schomberg House in 1784. This modern subject matter interested Reynolds, who purchased Gainsborough's Girl with Pigs (priv. coll.) for 100 guineas; with some satisfaction, Gainsborough felt that he had 'brought [his] Piggs to a fine market' (Letters, 147).

Drawing the line

In 1783 Gainsborough submitted his paintings to the Royal Academy so late that the only available space for the head-and-shoulders portrait Lady Anna Horatia Seymour (Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan) was the chimney-board in the fireplace of the Great Room. In the following year he forcefully insisted that if his portraits of the king and queen with thirteen of their children (Royal Collection) were shown above the ‘line’ (a moulding about eight feet from the floor which separated larger from smaller works) he would 'never more [send] another picture to the Exhibition' (Letters, 150). Immediately after the exhibition ended he travelled to the Lake District with his Ipswich friend Samuel Kilderbee and made a number of sketches that were to transform the mountains of coal in his table-top models to more realistic and romantic representations. Between July and September he visited Antwerp, his only continental trip, where he found the 'florid Gothic architecture like a cake all plumbs' (Asfour, Williamson, and Jackson, 28), and he presumably spent much of his time studying the work of Rubens and Van Dyck.

In the following year Gainsborough asked the hanging committee of the Royal Academy for a second dispensation, making the same request that he had made in 1783: he wanted his portrait The Three Eldest Princesses (Royal Collection) shown no more than five and a half feet from the ground. Perhaps the height was chosen with reference to its intended position at Carlton House, or it may have been chosen to cause maximum disruption to the hanging plan at the Royal Academy. The request was refused and, rather than opt for the threatening tone of his earlier correspondence, with a cold courtesy Gainsborough asked for all his paintings to be returned. He never exhibited at the Royal Academy again. With considerable support from the press, he instead displayed a selection of his work each year at Schomberg House to coincide with the Royal Academy exhibition. It is hard to see these altercations as anything but posturing by Gainsborough: the requests he made to the academy were unreasonable and led to the inevitable consequence. It is likely that he had orchestrated this response because his work was unsuited to the competitive nature of group exhibitions, and he wished to control the manner and lighting in which his work was hung. Support from Henry Bate helped him save face, although other journalists were more critical of his behaviour.

The 'fag End of Life'

The events of 1784 provided Gainsborough with an opportunity for redirection. He took on fewer portrait commissions, concentrating instead on producing landscape paintings and 'fancy pictures' and experimentation with prints using pure aquatint. Without the need to pander to patrons' egos, he was able to 'walk off to some sweet village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life' (Letters, 68). He was developing something of a new style as first revealed in The Mall (1783; Frick Collection, New York; Hayes, Landscape, no. 148), a landscape full of fashionable promenading women later described as 'all in motion, and in aflutter like a lady's fan' (W. Hazlitt, Conversations of James Northcote, R.A., 1894, 213). His late portraits, such as Mr and Mrs Hallett ('The Morning Walk', 1785; National Gallery, London) and Mrs Sheridan (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), manage a balance of tone, which in his Discourses Reynolds commented on with some surprise: 'his manner of forming all the parts of his picture together; the whole going on at the same time, in the same manner as nature creates her works' (Discourses on Art, 251), and provide an equilibrium between the subjects and their landscape backgrounds that Gainsborough had never before achieved. Many of the landscapes, especially those in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (for example: Hayes, Landscape, no. 151) and his single mythological subject Diana and Actaeon (Royal Collection; Hayes, Landscape, no. 160), have a freedom and mastery of handling that, compared with the finish of the works of his contemporaries, would have been difficult for many patrons to accept. Not surprisingly, both works remained in the artist's studio until after his death. Of the series of 'fancy pictures' he also produced, many remained in Gainsborough's studio, but the best of them, such as Cottage Girl with Pitcher (NG Ire.), were sold. This particular canvas was bought by Sir Francis Bassett in 1785. The Woodman, now known only from a print by Peter Simon, a painting that Gainsborough considered his best, was completed in 1787. It was shown to George III at Buckingham House, and Reynolds also viewed it shortly before Gainsborough died.

Death and reputation

Gainsborough noticed a cold spot on his neck at the trial of Warren Hastings in April 1788, and it proved to be a cancerous growth. Despite the attentions of Dr John Heberden, Gainsborough's neighbour, and the surgeon John Hunter, nothing could be done to cure him. He took refuge in his summer house at 2 The Terrace, Richmond, and died at Schomberg House on 2 August 1788. He was buried beside his old friend Joshua Kirby at St Anne's, Kew. Six artists were pallbearers: Sir William Chambers, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, Francesco Bartolozzi, Paul Sandby, and Samuel Cotes. Other mourners included his nephew Gainsborough Dupont and his friends Samuel Linley, Jonathan Buttall (supposedly the sitter for 'The Blue Boy'), Isaac Gosset (the frame maker), James Trimmer (Kirby's son-in-law), and Jeremiah Meyer. His widow, Margaret, held a private exhibition and sale of pictures in March 1789. Further auction sales at Christies on 2 June 1792, 10–11 April 1797, 10–11 May 1799, and 25 February 1831 continued the process of dispersing the contents of Gainsborough's studio. The lease on Schomberg House expired in June 1792, and early in the following year Mrs Gainsborough moved to 63 Sloane Street, London. Gainsborough Dupont, who had remained at Schomberg House, moved to 17 Grafton Street, Fitzroy Square, London, where he continued to work as a painter. Margaret Gainsborough died on 18 December 1798. The artist's daughters, Margaret and Mary, moved in the following summer to Michael's Place, Brompton Road, then to Brook Green, Hammersmith, and finally to Acton, where they were protected, perhaps not entirely altruistically, by the amateur painter Henry Briggs. Margaret died on 18 December 1820 and was buried at Hanwell. Mary, by then deranged, was cared for by her cousin Sophia Lane, and died on 2 July 1826. She was buried with her sister.

The most distinguished of Gainsborough's siblings, his elder brother the Revd Humphrey Gainsborough (bap. 1718, d. 1776), was an engineer of note who balanced his nonconformist ministry at Henley-on-Thames with improvements to the navigation of the River Thames and the construction of a steam engine which caused some concern to his rival, James Watt. His sister, Mary Gibbons (1713–1790), a lodging-house keeper in Bath, showed considerable entrepreneurial skill.

Gainsborough was a mercurial character with a clear understanding of his own abilities and a stubbornness inherited from his East Anglian nonconformist roots. His artistic training (he was mostly self-taught) exaggerated his temperamental opposition to the studio system operated by so many of his rivals and posed a problem which he was able to address by adopting a speedy technique of 'all those odd scratches and marks' that Reynolds found so difficult to understand (Discourses on Art, 257–8). Drawing at speed was the means by which he recorded what he saw around him. Reynolds was moved to comment with some disbelief about his:

habit of continually remarking to those who happened to be about him, whatever peculiarities of countenance, whatever accidental combination of figures, or happy effects of light and shadow, occurred in prospects, in the sky, in walking the streets or in company … he neglected nothing which could keep his faculties in exercise, and derived hints from every sort of combination.

ibid., 250

He did not suffer fools gladly and hated humbug. Like so many other artists, he found the regimented order of a portrait practice difficult to bear:

now damn Gentlemen, there is not such a set of Enemies, to a real Artist, in the World as they are, if not kept at a proper distance[.] They think (& so may you for a while) that they reward your merit by their Company & notice; but I, who blow away all the chaff & by G[od] in their Eyes too if they don't stand clear, know that they have but one part worth looking at, and that is their Purse; their Hearts are seldom near enough the right place to get a sight of it.

Letters, 42

He was a bon viveur, with some musical ability and a lively wit—'I have done nothing but fiddle since I came from London so much was I unsettled by the continual run of Pleasure with my Friend Giardini and the rest of you engaged me in' (ibid., 123). He was liberal-minded—'I would have every body enjoy, unmolested, their own opinions' (ibid., 131); considerate though prone to drinking which disrupted his work—Joseph Farington noted a conversation with the artist's daughter which recorded that he 'often exceeded the bounds of temperance & His health suffered from it,—being occasionally unable to work for a week after' (Farington, Diary, 1149). He was also charitably minded; in this he was supported by a firm religious belief. Although William Jackson states that he never read a book, recent research has done much to show that this was far from the truth. Connections have recently been made between Gainsborough's work and illustrations in books by Richard Bentley and Joseph Spence. His interest in the works of Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, and David Teniers is demonstrated by the copies he made of their paintings, but he was also inspired by works, often known only through prints, by such varied artists as Claude, Adriaen de Vries, Philips Wouvermans, Karel Dujardin, Rembrandt, Filippo Lauri, Salvator Rosa, Bartholomew Dandridge, and William Hogarth. No doubt future research will further demonstrate the extraordinary wealth of his visual memory and the inventive way in which he was able to adapt his sources.

The importance of the Royal Academy and the standards that Reynolds prescribed for it did much to suppress Gainsborough's reputation after his death. The prices achieved at his posthumous sales were disappointing and the publication of a set of prints by Joseph and Josiah Boydell in 1797 was surprisingly unsuccessful. Although he was regarded as 'one of the greatest ornaments of our Academy' and one of the founders of the English school (Discourses on Art, 248), the exhibition of a large selection of his work at the British Institution in 1814 did little to redress this decline. Interest in his landscape painting was encouraged by this exhibition and by the early acquisition of both The Watering Place and The Market Cart by the National Gallery in 1827 and 1830 respectively. John Constable in a lecture at the British Institution on 16 June 1836 provided the most touching tribute:

The landscape of Gainsborough is soothing, tender, and affecting. The stillness of noon, the depths of twilight, and the dews and pearls of the morning, are all to be found in the canvases of this most benevolent and kind-hearted man. On looking at them, we have tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them.

Constable's Discourses, 67

However, the real turn in opinion occurred after the publication of George Williams Fulcher's monograph in 1856 and when Gainsborough's portraits of the Hon. Mrs Graham and 'The Blue Boy' were included in the ‘Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition’ in 1857. Their exhibition encouraged the press to compare favourably his portraiture with that of Reynolds. By the 1870s a number of wealthy bankers and industrialists, particularly Baron Lionel de Rothschild, Sir Michael Bass (later Lord Burton), and Lord Iveagh, began to collect (mostly female) portraits. In 1876 Gainsborough's portrait Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (priv. coll.) was sold for the world-record sum of 10,000 guineas and was stolen ten days later. These extraordinary events made the portrait famous beyond its merit. Its recovery in 1901 made the portrait even better known, and it was frequently reproduced in a variety of media. From about 1910 Lord Duveen successfully encouraged American clients, particularly Henry Clay Frick, Henry E. Huntington, George Elkins, and Andrew Mellon, to purchase portraits by Gainsborough. The most famous purchase through Duveen was Mr Huntington's of 'The Blue Boy' in 1921 from the duke of Westminster for a reputed £120,000, which fuelled a similar public adoration to that spawned by the sale of the Duchess of Devonshire. British artists were never more esteemed, and Gainsborough was represented as the pinnacle of their achievement.

A series of exhibitions organized by Sir Philip Sassoon at 45 Park Lane, London, in the 1930s and Sir Sacheverell Sitwell's book Conversation Pieces of 1936 led to a general re-evaluation of Gainsborough's early work. After twenty years' research Sir Ellis Waterhouse's pioneer catalogue raisonné of Gainsborough's paintings was published in 1958. The taste for the artist's earliest work mostly painted in Suffolk was especially favoured by Paul Mellon in the 1960s and 1970s and was most clearly marked by the acquisition of Mr and Mrs Andrews by the National Gallery in 1960. This painting is now so well known that it has entered the public's imagination as the quintessential illustration of middle England, and is frequently used as the basis of political cartoons. Waterhouse's predominant interest in Gainsborough's portraiture left an imbalance in the study of his work that was redressed when John Hayes published his catalogues of Gainsborough's landscape drawings (1970 and 1983), prints (1971), and paintings (1982). Hayes also curated a number of exhibitions including that at the Tate Gallery (1980) and another in Ferrara in 1998.

In the United States there is a long-standing appreciation of Gainsborough's work; an exhibition was held in Cincinnati in 1931 and another, of Gainsborough's drawings, toured the country in 1983. In 2003 the monograph exhibition organized by the Tate also travelled to Washington, DC, and Boston. Exhibitions in Europe include that held at the Grand Palais, Paris (transferred from the Tate Gallery exhibition of 1980), and that at Ferrara. In the last fifteen years there has been evidence that the popularity of Gainsborough's early works has waned and, in parallel with the rising interest in the work of Reynolds, there are signs, borne out by the Tate exhibition in 2002, that the taste for Gainsborough's grander, later works is returning.


  • B. Allen, Francis Hayman (1987) [exhibition catalogue, New Haven and London]
  • A. Asfour and P. Williamson, ‘William Jackson of Exeter: new documents’, Gainsborough's House Review (1996–7), 39–144
  • A. Asfour, P. Williamson, and G. Jackson, ‘A second sentimental journey: Gainsborough abroad’, Apollo, 146 (Aug 1997), 27–30
  • A. Asfour and P. Williamson, Gainsborough's vision (1999)
  • R. Asleson and others, British paintings at the Huntington (2001)
  • J. Barrell, The dark side of the landscape (1981)
  • H. Belsey, ‘A visit to the studios of Gainsborough and Hoare’, Burlington Magazine, 129 (Feb 1987), 107–9
  • H. Belsey, Gainsborough's family (1988) [exhibition catalogue, Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, Suffolk, 11 June – 18 Sept, 1988]
  • H. Belsey, ‘Two works by Gainsborough’, National Art Collections Fund Review [year ending] (31 Dec 1992), 6–12
  • H. Belsey, ‘Thomas Gainsborough as an Ipswich musician, a collector of prints and a caricaturist’, East Anglia's history: studies in honour of Norman Scarfe, ed. C. Harper-Bill, C. Rawcliffe, and R. G. Wilson (2002)
  • H. Belsey, Gainsborough at Gainsborough's House (2002) [exhibition catalogue, Sudbury and London]
  • H. Belsey, Gainsborough: a country life (2002)
  • H. Belsey and C. Wright, Gainsborough pop (2002)
  • D. Brenneman, ‘Thomas Gainsborough and the picturesque sketch’, Word and Image, 13/4 (autumn 1997), 392–404
  • D. Brenneman, ‘Thomas Gainsborough's Wooded landscape with cattle by a pool: art criticism and the Royal Academy’, Gainsborough's House Review (1995–6), 37–46
  • H. S. Brown, ‘Gainsborough's classically ambivalent wife’, British Art Journal, 3/1 (autumn 2001), 78–9
  • J. Burke, English art, 1714–1800, Oxford History of English Art, 9 (1976)
  • John Constable's discourses, ed. R. B. Beckett (1970)
  • J. Derow, ‘Thomas Gainsborough's varnished drawings’, Master Drawings, 26/3 (autumn 1998), 259–71
  • J. Egerton, National Gallery catalogues: the British school (1998)
  • G. W. Fulcher, Life of Thomas Gainsborough R.A., ed. [E. S. Fulcher] (1856)
  • J. Hayes, ‘Gainsborough and Rubens’, Apollo, 78 (1963), 89–97
  • J. Hayes, ‘Gainsborough and the Bedfords’, The Connoisseur, 147 (April 1968), 217–24
  • review of Fulcher's biography, GM, 3rd ser., 1 (Aug 1856), 199
  • J. Hayes, The drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols. (1970)
  • J. Hayes, Gainsborough as printmaker (1971)
  • J. Hayes, The landscape paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols. (1982)
  • J. Hayes, ‘Gainsborough drawings: a supplement to the catalogue raisonné’, Master Drawings, 21/4 (winter 1983), 367–91
  • J. T. Hayes, British paintings of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries (1992)
  • The letters of Thomas Gainsborough, ed. J. Hayes (2001)
  • R. Jones, ‘Gainsborough's materials and methods: a “remarkable ability to make paint sparkle”’, Apollo, 146 (Aug 1997), 19–26
  • M. J. Levy, ‘Gainsborough's Mrs Robinson’, Apollo, 136 (1992), 152–4
  • P. McEvansoneya, ‘An Irish artist goes to Bath: letters from John Warren to Andrew Caldwell, 1776–1784’, Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, 2 (1999), 146–73
  • O. Millar, The later Georgian pictures in the collection of her majesty the queen, 2 vols. (1969)
  • M. Pointon, ‘Gainsborough and the landscape of retirement’, Art History, 2/4 (Dec 1979), 441–55
  • M. Postle, ‘Gainsborough's “lost” picture of Shakespeare’, Apollo, 134 (1991), 374–9
  • M. Postle, Thomas Gainsborough (2002)
  • Sir Joshua Reynolds ‘Discourses on art’, ed. R. R. Wark (1959)
  • M. Rosenthal, ‘Gainsborough's Diana and Acteon’, Painting and the politics of culture: new essays on British art, 1700–1850, ed. J. Barrell (1992), 167–94
  • M. Rosenthal, Glorious nature: British landscape painting, 1750–1850 (1993), 13–30 [exhibition catalogue, Denver Art Museum]
  • M. Rosenthal, ‘The rough and the smooth: rural subjects in later eighteenth-century British art’, Eighteenth-century life, 18 (May 1994), 36–58
  • M. Rosenthal, ‘Testing the water: Gainsborough in Bath in 1758’, Apollo, 142 (Sept 1995), 49–54
  • M. Rosenthal, ‘Ann Ford’, Art Bulletin, 90/4 (Dec 1998), 649–65
  • M. Rosenthal, The art of Thomas Gainsborough: ‘a little business for the eye’ (1999)
  • M. Rosenthal and M. Myrone, Gainsborough (2002) [exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain]
  • S. L. Sloman, ‘Gainsborough and “the lodging-house way”’, Gainsborough's House Review (1991–2), 23–44
  • S. L. Sloman, ‘Gainsborough in Bath, 1758–59’, Burlington Magazine, 137 (Aug 1995), 509–12
  • S. L. Sloman, ‘Mrs Margaret Gainsborough, “a prince's daughter”’, Gainsborough's House Review (1995–6), 47–58
  • S. L. Sloman, ‘The Holloway Gainsborough: its subject re-examined’, Gainsborough's House Review (1997–8), 47–54
  • S. Sloman, Gainsborough in Bath (2002)
  • D. H. Solkin, ‘Gainsborough's classically virtuous wife’, British Art Journal, 2/2 (2000–01), 75–7
  • G. Sawyer, ‘A note on Thomas Gainsborough and Adriaen de Vries’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 14 (1951), 134
  • P. Thicknesse, A sketch of the life and paintings of Thomas Gainsborough (1788)
  • D. D. Tyler, ‘Thomas Gainsborough's daughters’, Gainsborough's House Review (1991–2), 50–66
  • D. D. Tyler, ‘The Gainsborough family: births, marriages and deaths re-examined’, Gainsborough's House Review (1992–3), 38–54
  • D. D. Tyler, ‘Out from the shadows: Robert Gainsborough, the artist's eldest brother’, Gainsborough's House Review (1997–8), 55–69
  • E. K. Waterhouse, ‘The first Royal Academy exhibition, 1769’, The Listener, 43 (1 June 1950), 944–6
  • E. K. Waterhouse, ‘Preliminary check-list of portraits by Thomas Gainsborough’, Walpole Society, 34 (1953) [whole issue]
  • E. K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough (1958)
  • G. Walkley, Artists' houses in London, 1764–1914 (1994)
  • W. T. Whitley, Gainsborough (1915)
  • M. Woodall, ‘Gainsborough's use of models’, Antiques, 70 (Oct 1956), 363–5
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1169, fols. 29v–32r


  • BL, letters and drafts, Add. MS 48964
  • Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, papers
  • RA, letters
  • V&A NAL, notes relating to Allan Cunningham's Life of Gainsborough, and papers


  • T. Gainsborough, group portrait, oils, 1751–2, Houghton Hall, Norfolk
  • T. Gainsborough, self-portrait, oils, 1754, Houghton Hall, Norfolk
  • T. Gainsborough, self-portrait, oils, 1758–1759, NPG
  • attrib. W. Hoare, oils, 1763–7, Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, California
  • J. Zoffany, oils, 1772, NPG
  • T. Gainsborough, self-portrait, oils, 1782, Holkham Hall, Norfolk
  • T. Gainsborough, self-portrait, oils, 1787, RA [see illus.]
  • E. Ortner, medal, 1859, NPG
  • J. Scott, mezzotint (after T. Gainsborough), BM, NPG


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