Made In England
Detail from the self portrait
The boy is back in town
By Andrew Woodger
One of Thomas Gainsborough's self portraits has come 'home' for the first time in its history. He spent much of his early life in Suffolk where he began earning his keep painting local wealthy people and now he's sitting alongside them in a gallery.
Gainsborough made his money and reputation as one of the best portrait painters in Britain. He was famous in his own lifetime to the extent that he was commissioned to paint George III and Queen Charlotte in 1780.
He was born in Sudbury in 1727 and, after an apprenticeship in London with the French engraver Hubert Gravelot, he returned to his hometown and then to Ipswich. Between 1752 and 1759 Gainsborough established himself as a portrait painter of friends and wealthy patrons at a time when the county town was a flourishing port.
His self-portrait is thought to date from the end of this Ipswich period and it's been loaned from the National Portrait Gallery to Christchurch Mansion where it hangs in the Wolsey Art Gallery.
Emma Roodhouse is the Art Curator of Ipswich and Colchester Museums: "Artists do paint themselves as a status symbol as if to say 'Look, I've achieved quite a bit here'.
Emma Roodhouse with Tom Pear Tree
"I think he looks quite proud there as well. In the background he's painted oak leaves signifying he's proud to be English."
Gainsborough's Ipswich patrons included attorney Samuel Kilderbee and his wife, Mrs Bedingfield and her daughter (1760's) and William Wollaston (1759). The portraits in the Wolsey show the development of his style.
We also get a glimpse of his sense of humour. Gainsborough painted 'Tom Pear Tree' on a piece of board and sat it on a wall. It was thought to have actually fooled some people into thinking there was a real man leaning on a wall who never moved.
Modern-day Ipswich artist Adam Neate could be said to have followed up this idea with his project of leaving a thousand prints of his work around London in 2008.
Gainsborough was born in a house that is now called Gainsborough's House on a street that is now called Gainsborough Street. The town has retained the name 'Sudbury' however! It's also the birthplace of modern day artist Maggi Hambling of Aldeburgh Scallop fame.
"Gainsborough's father is described as a weaver and the family were one of the most important in the surrounding area, so by modern standards, he'd be described as middle class," said Diane Perkins from Gainsborough's House, which now serves as a museum.
"There are stories of him playing truant from Sudbury Grammar School and going drawing in Cornard Wood rather than doing his studies.
Detail of Miss Kilderbee
"So he obviously had an enthusiasm for his art. There are stories of an uncle giving him £10 to go to London and find an apprenticeship.
"It wasn't an awful lot of money really, so it wasn't necessary to be really well off to do what Gainsborough did."
After his apprenticeship in London he came back to Sudbury with his wife Margaret and they had two children, but found it difficult to earn a living as a portrait artist - hence the trip to the more affluent county town.
On leaving Ipswich, Gainsborough moved on to Bath (1759-74) where there was again more money and he could test himself against other portrait artists in a more competitive market.
Although all the money was in portraiture, Gainsborough's landscapes are thought to have been a big influence on Suffolk's John Constable. His painting The Haywain is arguably the most famous image of the British landscape.
"Landscape wasn't seen as a justified painting genre at the time, but certainly Gainsborough was a pioneer of that. His early landscapes were quite realistic - particularly the one of Holywells Park," said Emma Roodhouse.
"Constable went to the areas that Gainsborough painted in Ipswich, so he was definitely aware of his work. What's really nice at Christchurch Mansion is that you can see Gainsborough's influence on the Constables hanging in the same room alongside Dutch and other Suffolk artists."
Diane Perkins said there's a recognisable difference between Gainsborough and Constable:
"The important thing with Constable was that he was painting recognisable places that he was often associated with such as mills owned by his father.
"Although we might recognise Gainsborough's paintings as being very Suffolk or East Anglian-like, they're not of any particular places. It would be lovely to identify them, but they were figments of his imagination."
So there's no 'Gainsborough Trail' that can highlight the painter's legacy in the way that Flatford Mill can cash-in and market itself as 'Constable Country'. You can still visit Holywells Park in Ipswich of course!
"What's unusual about Gainsborough is that he was an artist doing both landscape and portraiture. It shows how incredibly talented he was that he was so brilliant at both types of subject matter," continued Diane.
Gainsborough's House, Sudbury
"He was definitely in the first division of English artists at the time."
In 1768, Gainsborough became a founder member of the Royal Academy in London alongside his fellow Royal painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. He fell out with the Academy in later years over the way his paintings were being hung.
He made a permanent move to London in 1774, and died of cancer in 1788. He was buried in Kew Churchyard.
Gainsborough's self portrait will be in Christchurch Mansion until September 2009 alongside the permanent collection of his, and Constable's, work.
last updated: 03/04/2009 at 16:28
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