Romantic Revolutionary

James Hamilton’s biography of Thomas Gainsborough offers a portrait not just of the artist but also of the worlds he moved through

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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.

Gainsborough was now a celebrity. When he came up to London, it was to lunch in Soho with Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Sheridan and Garrick — “the Blue Stocking Fraternity”. But he was overworking and became critically ill: only the ministrations of his wife saved his life.

He was now painting better than ever, portraits and big, ambitious landscapes, and was financially secure. Throughout the 1760s he had shown his work in London with the Society of Artists but, following Hogarth’s death, the Society collapsed. So Reynolds engineered the creation of the Royal Academy in 1768, with Gainsborough as a founding member.

All went well in the beginning. He showed The Blue Boy, his portraits of Garrick and of his great friend, William Jackson and a landscape in 1769. But in 1772 the Academy refused to show his portrait of Lady Waldegrave, the mistress of the Prince of Wales, for fear of offending the King.

This caused a major rift with the Academy: what Gainsborough described as his “implacable resentment”. Zoffany omitted Gainsborough from the group portrait he made of the RA’s founding members.

Gainsborough was not interested in committees and so, unlike Reynolds, was not an asset to the Academy. But, again in contrast to Reynolds, he established an easy relationship with both George III and Queen Charlotte. Their official portraits by Reynolds and Ramsay are stiff compared to Gainsborough’s “charming and romantic” portrait of Queen Charlotte. He became their friend and gave them both painting lessons, but it was Reynolds who was knighted and made the King’s Painter in Ordinary when Ramsay died.

Hamilton is judicious about the relationship between Gainsborough and Reynolds. Their characters and ambitions were so dissimilar that they were never going to be close, but Reynolds admired Gainsborough, bought his landscape, Girl with Pigs, and visited him as he lay dying.

Gainsborough loved women, as his paintings of them show — Perdita Robinson, the actress and lover of the Prince of Wales; Giovanni Bacelli; Sarah Siddons, the actress; the beautiful Mary Graham; Ann Ford; and the several paintings of his daughters and of his wife.

As he lay dying he told William Jackson: “We are all going to heaven, and Van Dyck is of the company.” Indeed, his last words were “Van Dyck”.

This is a masterly book, all the more so considering the scant material that Gainsborough left (no schedules of sittings, no invoices, few letters). Despite this it is even better than his life of Turner. It is to be hoped that he might now turn his talents to Constable and Lawrence.