Thomas Gainsborough is among the finest – and certainly the best-loved – English painters of the eighteenth century. Born in 1727 in Sudbury, Suffolk, the son of a clothier turned postmaster, Gainsborough studied in London from c.1740 with the rococo painters Hubert-François Gravelot and Francis Hayman. In 1746 he married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, whose large (£200 a year) allowance failed to make him as prosperous as he would have wished. Gainsborough probably attended Hogarth’s St Martin’s Lane Academy and contributed a painting of The Charterhouse to Hogarth’s favourite charity, the Foundling Hospital (1748; Foundling Hospital).
In 1748 Thomas Gainsborough returned to Sudbury, painting landscapes influenced by the seventeenth century Dutch masters and earning his living by portrait painting. Among these portraits is the astonishing Mr and Mrs Andrews, c.1748-50 (National Gallery, London) with its elegant figures set in an exquisite naturalistic landscape. In 1752 Gainsborough moved to the bigger town of Ipswich, painting local worthies like Admiral Vernon, 1753 (with Richard Green Gallery in 2000), before going on to fashionable Bath around 1759.
Gainsborough – mercurial, witty and a fine musician - prospered in Bath with a diaphanous and brilliantly inventive portrait style influenced by the glamour of van Dyck. Portraits like Mary, Countess Howe, 1763-4 (Kenwood House, London) are painted in free, flickering brushstrokes which make the sitter shimmer with life. His landscapes of this period, such as The harvest waggon, 1767 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham) are similarly poetic.
Gainsborough exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1761. In 1768 he was a founder member of the Royal Academy, although he had an uneasy relationship with that institution, withdrawing from RA exhibitions from 1773 to 1777 and finally breaking with it in 1784 when his portraits of the royal family were ‘skied’.
In 1774 Thomas Gainsborough moved to London, settling at Schomberg House in the Mall (which still stands) and moving, as he had always done, in musical, theatrical and society circles. His later portraits, like Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1785 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) envelop the sitter in a freely-painted, romantic landscape. He painted richly-toned landscapes influenced by Rubens, mythological subjects such as Diana and Actaeon (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace) and large, sentimental ‘fancy pictures’ like Cottage girl with dog and pitcher (National Gallery, Dublin).
Gainsborough was a superb, experimental draughtsman, working in chalk, charcoal, pen and ink, pencil, softground etching, and a mysterious technique designed to make drawings emulate oil paintings, in which he varnished drawings with gum Arabic. Emulating his friend Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, he also painted landscapes on glass back-lit with candlelight. Gainsborough liked to paint by candlelight, as it unified tones and softened detail; his portraits are full of magical, half-glimpsed movement.
His rival Joshua Reynolds wrote a valedictory Discourse on Gainsborough after his death in London in August 1788, when only sixty-one and at the height of his powers: ‘If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honourable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of Art, among the very first of that rising name’.