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Voluptuous, bold: “Ann Ford, later Mrs Philip Thicknesse”, 1760, by Gainsborough

James Hamilton’s Gainsborough: A Portrait is more than a portrait of the man and the artist: it is also a portrait of the various worlds in which Thomas Gainsborough lived.

He was born and brought up in Sudbury, Suffolk, with a father who became bankrupt. His uncle, also Thomas, died in 1738, leaving him £10 plus a further £20 a year for three years “to enable him to set out into the world”. With it, aged 13, Thomas set off for London to become an artist. He found work with Francis Hayman doing designs and views for Vauxhall Gardens, plus some instruction in the St Martin’s Lane Academy and with the French engraver, Gravelot.

Thomas was handsome and charming. Hamilton is good on the background — Hogarth, Thomas Coram and his Foundation, and the art world in which Thomas now moved (Rysback, Roubiliac, Alan Ramsay from Edinburgh and John Boydell, the dealer and printmaker). But although he sold occasional landscapes, he couldn’t make a living, so he returned to Sudbury.

He married an attractive Suffolk girl, Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who had settled £200 a year on her. Landscapes were what Gainsborough loved but portraits were what people wanted, so he started to paint people in landscapes, notably a rich young local landowner, Robert Andrews, and his new wife. He used lay figures (doll-like mannequins) so the figures are stiff, but Hamilton is excellent on why this painting is so revolutionary; indeed, he suggests, it is implicitly sexual (though it was not until the 1960s that this was fully appreciated).

In search of more patrons he and Margaret moved to Ipswich and the patrons came — local clergymen and politicians, and friends and family. The portraits grew in size and cost (five guineas for a head and shoulders; 15 for a full-length). But he was still earning no more than £100 a year and his daughters were growing up. So, both his parents having died in 1755 and no longer having ties in Suffolk, he decided to move to Bath, where there were plenty of potential clients — musicians (Johann Christian Bach), actors (Garrick, Sarah Siddons), writers (Sheridan), doctors and scientists such as William Herschel.

Over the next 15 years he painted more than 300 portraits, including 140 full-lengths. Hamilton picks out his portrait of the lute-playing singer Ann Ford, five foot by seven: voluptuous, bold, her legs crossed provocatively, it caused a sensation. He quadrupled his prices.

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