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Gainsborough in London


Susan Sloman


New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021

Hardback. 404 pp. 238 colour illustrations. ISBN 978-0956800787. $45/£35


Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière–Lyon 2





In 2002, Yale University Press published Gainsborough in Bath, a book in which Susan Sloman scrutinised the period going from 1759 to 1774, when a young British painter, having settled in the most fashionable city of the kingdom, turned into a major European artist. As an independent scholar, Sloman then went on with her research, being the author or co-author of several publications on other aspects of Thomas Gainsborough’s art. Two decades later, she is back with Gainsborough in London, the expected sequel of her previous volume, which focuses on the last fifteen years in the painter’s life. It is worth quoting the warning expressed by Sloman herself: this book is not a biography strictly speaking, but “a collection of thematic explorations of the artist’s career, based on a re-examination of the paintings, drawing and prints and the unearthing of new documents” [1]. The new book follows the same pattern as Gainsborough in Bath, which also claimed to rely on “freshly discovered documents and a variety of little-known contemporary published sources”. While Bath could be seen as “a training ground and a springboard to greater things” [5], London, where Gainsborough had studied with Hogarth in the 1740s, was the place where he could truly assert himself as Reynolds’s rival, and where he “managed to balance down-to-earth productivity and creative risk-taking” [7].

The first chapters are devoted to Gainsborough’s lodgings in the capital, the west wing of Schomberg House, in Pall Mall, which had been previously occupied by King George III’s sister, the duchess of Brunswick, and which was very conveniently close to the Prince of Wales’s Carlton House and various exhibition rooms. In spite of the imprecision of the surviving accounts, Susan Sloman brilliantly exploits all the evidence available in order to reconstruct as closely as possible the arrangements that were made by the painter who created a studio and business premises behind the house proper. In London, Gainsborough worked with only one assistant: his sister’s son, Gainsborough Dupont, who helped him in the finishing of portraits. Even though the nephew assimilated some of his technique, he was far from being as gifted as his uncle. Gainsborough was famous for “painting at speed”, “painting at once”, asking from his models only a limited number of sittings. He privileged colour and a thin, watery texture, while Reynolds favoured composition and heavy impasto. His originality resided in his brushwork, his manner being based on “indecision more than precision”, on (English) tenderness rather than (French) hard brilliancy.

Unfortunately, there is hardly anything left of the various decors Gainsborough painted for the concert hall built by Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, or of the frontispiece figures he designed for the King’s Theatre, Haymarket. Hence the slightly frustrating nature of the chapter analysing the artist’s relations with the London musical world. A fascinating essay retraces the difficult relationship Gainsborough had with the Royal Academy, where none of his works had been displayed between 1773 and 1777, and from which he decided to withdraw in 1784 after a violent quarrel with the hanging committee or “Committee of Arrangement” because of the unsatisfactory position attributed to his portrait of The Three Eldest Princesses. In spite of such prestigious commissions, and though Gainsborough was appreciated for his noble but simple, unostentatious figures, his “at once regal and informal” effigies [132], the favour he enjoyed with the royal family was never made official: when Ramsay died in 1784, Zoffany having displeased George III, Reynolds was preferred as successor to the title of painter to the King. Gainsborough had also managed to “win over” the Prince of Wales, producing splendid portraits of his mistresses, “Perdita” Robinson and Mrs Elliott. The painter was thus granted the aristocratic patronage of various courtiers and courtesans, who liked being depicted in Van Dyck masquerade costumes and Rubens-like poses. In the 1780s, several ladies decided to have their portrait retouched because hair fashion had changed. While his previous portraits tended to be rather static, Gainsborough then tried to create more active attitudes, thus emulating the President of the Royal Academy, sometimes with slightly awkward results. Action and allegory came more naturally to his rivals.

Sitters could choose between “Heads” (which included the torso, despite their name, and even the hands in certain cases), “Half-lengths” and “Full-lengths”, the prices varying from 30 guineas for the smaller paintings, to 60 for the second category and 100 or eventually 120 for the third one (a useful appendix provides more detailed examples, at the end of the book). Most of those portraits were specially commissioned, but there also existed “show pictures” which the artist displayed in his studio for visitors. In the last five years of his life, Gainsborough started painting large group portraits but, out of six, only two have survived intact. Some were destroyed by fire and are now only known through contemporary prints, others were cut into pieces. It is no coincidence if Mr and Mrs Hallett was chosen as a cover illustration for the volume, as it remains one of the most splendid examples of the complex integration of landscape and portrait in his work.

Reynolds was reputed for his portraits and for his history paintings, but Gainsborough was the only British artist of his time to exhibit both portraits and landscapes. All along his career, he exploited a limited number of compositional themes (a peasant cart crossing a bridge, a shepherd and his sheep, etc.), but his style changed radically over the decades. As opposed to some artists who grow bored when they recycle the same ideas, Gainsborough was stimulated by variations in different techniques: “the more he repeated a subject, the more it challenged and excited him” [208]. His landscapes inspired him to try his hand at making his own etchings after his drawings. Fancy pictures – landscapes with life-size figures brought to the front – were his most remarkable innovation in the 1780s. Those uncommissioned paintings occupied the summer months, when there was less demand for portraits. Their humble, rustic subjects were admired for their “good taste”, with “no idea of dirt & wretchedness”, according to contemporary accounts, and they also allowed for pathos, with religious undertones. Here again, several were destroyed by fire and are now only known through prints or copies.

Gainsborough only left Britain once, when he went to Antwerp in 1783, to see the Rubens in the cathedral. His own collection of paintings favoured Flemish and Dutch artists. Even when the models were in England in his time, his copies after Titian or Rubens were probably made after prints, as the colours could be widely different. If Gainsborough was eventually acclaimed as a “universal genius”, it was because he had managed to widen his horizons beyond his natural gift. His intellectual range was manifested through forays in genres which he had hardly ever practiced before, such as seascapes, animal pictures or history paintings. Two works summarise this late evolution in his art: The Mall (1783) and the splendidly unfinished Diana and Actaeon (1784), which make it even more regrettable that he could not agree on a price for a possible contribution to Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. More than the biography published less than one month after his death by his friend Philip Thicknesse, the highest tribute paid to the late Gainsborough was the fourteenth Discourse delivered in December 1788 at the Royal Academy by his rival Reynolds. By the depth of its research as much as the quality of its reproductions, Susan Sloman’s book is another vibrant homage to the painter, opportunely published a few years before England and the world celebrate the tricentenary of his birth.



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