Thomas Gainsborough

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Thomas Gainsborough
Thomas Gainsborough by Thomas Gainsborough.jpg
Self-portrait (1759)
Thomas Gainsborough

(1727-05-14)14 May 1727 (baptised)
Sudbury, Suffolk, England
Died2 August 1788(1788-08-02) (aged 61)
London, England
Known forPainter
Notable work
Mr and Mrs Andrews
The Blue Boy

Thomas Gainsborough FRSA (14 May 1727 (baptised) – 2 August 1788) was an English portrait and landscape painter, draughtsman, and printmaker. Along with his bitter rival Sir Joshua Reynolds, [1] he is considered one of the most important British portrait artists of the second half of the 18th century. [2] He painted quickly, and the works of his maturity are characterised by a light palette and easy strokes. Despite being a prolific portrait painter, Gainsborough gained greater satisfaction from his landscapes. [3] He is credited (with Richard Wilson) as the originator of the 18th-century British landscape school. Gainsborough was a founding member of the Royal Academy.

Royal Society of Arts British organisation

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a London-based, British organisation committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges. Founded in 1754 by William Shipley as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, it was granted a Royal Charter in 1847, and the right to use the term Royal in its name by King Edward VII in 1908. The shorter version, The Royal Society of Arts and the related RSA acronym, are used more frequently than the full name.

Portrait Artistic representation of one or more persons

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

Richard Wilson (painter) Welsh landscape painter

Richard Wilson was an influential Welsh landscape painter, who worked in Britain and Italy. With George Lambert he is recognised as a pioneer in British art of landscape for its own sake and was described in the Welsh Academy Encyclopedia of Wales as the "most distinguished painter Wales has ever produced and the first to appreciate the aesthetic possibilities of his country". In December 1768 Wilson became one of the founder-members of the Royal Academy. A catalogue raisonné of the artist's work is published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.


Youth and training

Lady Lloyd and Her Son, Richard Savage Lloyd, of Hintlesham Hall, Suffolk (1745-46). At the time, his clientele included mainly local merchants and squires. Thomas Gainsborough - Lady Lloyd and Her Son, Richard Savage Lloyd, of Hintlesham Hall, Suffolk - Google Art Project.jpg
Lady Lloyd and Her Son, Richard Savage Lloyd, of Hintlesham Hall, Suffolk (1745–46). At the time, his clientele included mainly local merchants and squires.

He was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, the youngest son of John Gainsborough, a weaver and maker of woolen goods, and his wife, the sister of the Reverend Humphry Burroughs. [4] One of Gainsborough's brothers, Humphrey, had a faculty for mechanics and was said to have invented the method of condensing steam in a separate vessel, which was of great service to James Watt; another brother, John, was known as Scheming Jack because of his passion for designing curiosities. [5]

Sudbury, Suffolk town in Suffolk, England

Sudbury is a small market town in the English county of Suffolk. It is located on the River Stour near the Essex border, and is 60 miles (97 km) north-east of London. At the 2011 census, the parish has a population of 13,063, rising to 21,971 including the adjoining parish of Great Cornard. It is the largest town of Babergh district council, the local government district, and is represented in the UK Parliament as part of the South Suffolk constituency.

Humphrey Gainsborough British engineer and minister

Reverend Humphrey Gainsborough was an English non-conformist minister, engineer, and inventor.

James Watt British engineer

James Watt was a Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist who improved on Thomas Newcomen's 1712 Newcomen steam engine with his Watt steam engine in 1776, which was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both his native Great Britain and the rest of the world.

The artist spent his childhood at what is now Gainsborough's House, on Gainsborough Street. He later resided there, following the death of his father in 1748 and before his move to Ipswich. [6] The original building still survives and is now a house dedicated to his life and art.

Gainsboroughs House birthplace of the leading English painter Thomas Gainsborough

Gainsborough's House is the birthplace of the leading English painter Thomas Gainsborough. It is now a museum and gallery, located at 46 Gainsborough Street in Sudbury, Suffolk, England. Some of the pictures on display have been acquired with the help of the Art Fund.

When he was still a boy he impressed his father with his drawing and painting skills, and he almost certainly had painted heads and small landscapes by the time he was ten years old, including a miniature self-portrait. [7] Gainsborough was allowed to leave home in 1740 to study art in London, where he trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot [4] but became associated with William Hogarth and his school. He assisted Francis Hayman in the decoration of the supper boxes at Vauxhall Gardens, [4] and contributed to the decoration of what is now the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of both England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

Hubert-François Gravelot French artist

Hubert-François Bourguignon, commonly known as Gravelot, was a French engraver, a famous book illustrator, designer and drawing-master. Born in Paris, he emigrated to London in 1732, where he quickly became a central figure in the introduction of the Rococo style in British design, which was disseminated from London in this period, through the media of book illustrations and engraved designs as well as by the examples of luxury goods in the "French taste" brought down from London to provincial towns and country houses.

William Hogarth English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic, and editorial cartoonist

William Hogarth FRSA was an English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic, and editorial cartoonist. His work ranged from realistic portraiture to comic strip-like series of pictures called "modern moral subjects", perhaps best known being his moral series A Harlot's Progress, A Rake's Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode. Knowledge of his work is so pervasive that satirical political illustrations in this style are often referred to as "Hogarthian".



In 1746, Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled a £200 annuity on them. The artist's work, then mostly consisting of landscape paintings, was not selling well. He returned to Sudbury in 1748–1749 and concentrated on painting portraits. [8]

Henry Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort English noble

Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort born Henry Somerset, was an English nobleman and peer. He was the elder son of Henry Somerset, 2nd Duke of Beaufort and his second wife, Rachel Noel. As his father's eldest son and heir to his father's title he was known as (styled) Marquess of Worcester, a courtesy title. On his father's death on 24 April 1714 he succeeded him and became 3rd Duke of Beaufort.

In 1752, he and his family, now including two daughters, moved to Ipswich. Commissions for personal portraits increased, but his clientele included mainly local merchants and squires. He had to borrow against his wife's annuity. [8] Towards the end of his time in Ipswich, he painted a self-portrait, [9] which is now in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. [10]

Ipswich Town and Borough in England

Ipswich is a large historical town in Suffolk, England, located in East Anglia about 66 miles (106 km) north east of London. It is also the county town of Suffolk. The town has been continuously occupied since the Saxon period, and its port has been one of England's most important for the whole of its history.

National Portrait Gallery, London Art museum in London

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is an art gallery in London housing a collection of portraits of historically important and famous British people. It was the first portrait gallery in the world when it opened in 1856. The gallery moved in 1896 to its current site at St Martin's Place, off Trafalgar Square, and adjoining the National Gallery. It has been expanded twice since then. The National Portrait Gallery also has regional outposts at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire and Montacute House in Somerset. It is unconnected to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, with which its remit overlaps. The gallery is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.


Ann Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse), 1760 Thomas Gainsborough - Ann Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse) - Google Art Project.jpg
Ann Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse), 1760
The Blue Boy (1770). The Huntington, California The Blue Boy.jpg
The Blue Boy (1770). The Huntington, California

In 1759, Gainsborough and his family moved to Bath, living at number 17 The Circus. [11] There, he studied portraits by van Dyck and was eventually able to attract a fashionable clientele. In 1761, he began to send work to the Society of Arts exhibition in London (now the Royal Society of Arts, of which he was one of the earliest members); and from 1769 he submitted works to the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions. He selected portraits of well-known or notorious clients in order to attract attention. The exhibitions helped him acquire a national reputation, and he was invited to become a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1769. His relationship with the academy was not an easy one and he stopped exhibiting his paintings in 1773.


Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas (1746-1811), 1783-84 at Waddesdon Manor Thomas Gainsborough, Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas (1746 - 1811), 1783-84 at Waddesdon Manor.jpg
Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas (1746–1811), 1783–84 at Waddesdon Manor

In 1774, Gainsborough and his family moved to London to live in Schomberg House, Pall Mall. [4] [12] A commemorative blue plaque was put on the house in 1951. [13] In 1777, he again began to exhibit his paintings at the Royal Academy, including portraits of contemporary celebrities, such as the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland. Exhibitions of his work continued for the next six years. About this time, Gainsborough began experimenting with printmaking using the then-novel techniques of aquatint and soft-ground etching. [14]

Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield (1777-78). His later pictures are characterised by a light palette and easy strokes. Thomas Gainsborough (English - Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield - Google Art Project.jpg
Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield (1777–78). His later pictures are characterised by a light palette and easy strokes.

During the 1770s and 1780s Gainsborough developed a type of portrait in which he integrated the sitter into the landscape. An example of this is his portrait of Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas (1746–1811) which can be seen at Waddesdon Manor. The sitter has withdrawn to a secluded and overgrown corner of a garden to read a letter, her pose recalling the traditional representation of Melancholy. Gainsborough emphasised the relationship between Mrs Douglas and her environment by painting the clouds behind her and the drapery billowing across her lap with similar silvery mauves and fluid brushstrokes. This portrait was included in his first private exhibition at Schomberg House in 1784. [15]

In 1776, Gainsborough painted a portrait of Johann Christian Bach, [16] the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. [17] Bach's former teacher Padre Martini of Bologna, Italy, was assembling a collection of portraits of musicians, and Bach asked Gainsborough to paint his portrait as part of this collection. [16] The portrait now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. [16]

In 1780, he painted the portraits of King George III and his queen and afterwards received many royal commissions. This gave him some influence with the Academy and allowed him to dictate the manner in which he wished his work to be exhibited. However, in 1783, he removed his paintings from the forthcoming exhibition and transferred them to Schomberg House.

In 1784, royal painter Allan Ramsay died and the King was obliged to give the job to Gainsborough's rival and Academy president, Joshua Reynolds. Gainsborough remained the Royal Family's favorite painter, however.

In his later years, Gainsborough often painted relatively simple, ordinary landscapes. With Richard Wilson, he was one of the originators of the eighteenth-century British landscape school; though simultaneously, in conjunction with Reynolds, he was the dominant British portraitist of the second half of the 18th century.

William Jackson in his contemporary essays said of him "to his intimate friends he was sincere and honest and that his heart was always alive to every feeling of honour and generosity". [18] Gainsborough did not particularly enjoy reading but letters written to his friends were penned in such an exceptional conversational manner that the style could not be equalled. [19] As a letter writer Henry Bate-Dudley said of him "a selection of his letters would offer the world as much originality and beauty as is ever traced in his paintings". [20]

In the 1780s, Gainsborough used a device he called a "Showbox" to compose landscapes and display them backlit on glass. The original box is on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum with a reproduction transparency. [21]

He died of cancer on 2 August 1788 at the age of 61. According to his daughter Peggy, his last words were "van Dyck". [22] He is interred in the churchyard St. Anne's Church, Kew, Surrey, (located on Kew Green). It was his express wish to be buried near his friend Joshua Kirby. Later his wife and nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, were interred with him. Coincidentally Johan Zoffany and Franz Bauer are also buried in the graveyard. As of 2011, an appeal is underway to pay the costs of restoration of his tomb. [23] A street in Kew, Gainsborough Road, is named after him. [24]


Girl with Pigs, 1781-82, said by Sir Joshua Reynolds to be "the best picture he ever painted" Girl with Pigs by Thomas Gainsborough.jpg
Girl with Pigs, 1781–82, said by Sir Joshua Reynolds to be "the best picture he ever painted"

The art historian Michael Rosenthal described Gainsborough as "one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time". [14] He was noted for the speed with which he applied paint, and he worked more from observations of nature (and of human nature) than from application of formal academic rules. [14] The poetic sensibility of his paintings caused Constable to say, "On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them."

Gainsborough's enthusiasm for landscapes is shown in the way he merged figures of the portraits with the scenes behind them. He said, "I am sick of portraits and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips (sic) and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness & ease." [26] His landscapes were often painted at night by candlelight, using a tabletop arrangement of stones, pieces of mirrors, broccoli, and the like as a model. [14] His later work was characterised by a light palette and easy, economical strokes. [27]

Gainsborough's only known assistant was his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont. [4] In the last year of his life he collaborated with John Hoppner in painting a full-length portrait of Lady Charlotte Talbot.[ citation needed ]


His most famous works, Portrait of Mrs. Graham; Mary and Margaret: The Painter's Daughters; William Hallett and His Wife Elizabeth, nee Stephen, known as The Morning Walk; and Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher, display the unique individuality of his subjects. Joshua Reynolds considered Girl with Pigs "the best picture he (Gainsborough) ever painted or perhaps ever will". [25]

Gainsborough's works became popular with collectors from the 1850s on, after Lionel de Rothschild began buying his portraits. The rapid rise in the value of pictures by Gainsborough and also by Reynolds in the mid 19th century was partly because the Rothschild family, including Ferdinand de Rothschild began collecting them. [28]

In 2011, Gainsborough's portrait of Miss Read (Mrs Frances Villebois) was sold by Michael Pearson, 4th Viscount Cowdray, for a record price of £6.5M. [29] She was a matrilineal descendant of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. [30] [31]

See also

The Harvest Wagon (c. 1784) Gainsborough-HarvestWagon1784.jpg
The Harvest Wagon (c. 1784)

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Further reading