A History of Art in England (23): Gainsborough, a joy of life.

centre: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) Self Portrait [c.1759, National Portrait Gallery]

right: Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) Self Portrait [c.1749, National Portrait Gallery]

And of course, on the left, our very own John Rothenstein [by Jacques-Emile Blanche; 1927; National Portrait Gallery] whose book An Introduction to English Painting notes the rivalry between Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, explaining it through the words of (art historian and Director of the National Gallery) Charles Holmes:

“Art with Reynolds is made to seem so like a conscious intellectual force that we do less than justice to the aesthetic enthusiasm that inspired it, whereas with Gainsborough this last is plainly to the fore.”

[There’s a discussion about Reynolds and his art – “The Artist as Intellectual” – by Martin Postle c/o the Paul Mellon Centre on 18th June 2020]

That difference between the two artists seems even to play out in the two portraits above: the twenty-five year old Reynolds, with palette and brushes, looking ambitiously into the future, whilst Gainsborough, in his early thirties, gazes at us rather more pleasantly, framed by the leafy branches of a tree.

The ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ that Holmes notes certainly comes through in Gainsborough’s painting – in his later works especially there is a thrill in the silvery-feathery-creamy strokes of the paintbrush; his colours are lighter than those of Reynolds and it’s often interesting to note the design of his pictures.

Rothenstein says: “[Whilst] Hogarth began the liberation of English portraiture from the formality imposed upon it by foreign masters, Gainsborough completed the process, and in so doing he brought to it a new spirit – fresh, informal and unselfconscious.

There is something else Gainsborough brings to his art – a joy of life.

If we were to choose just one of the nearly 400 painting at artuk.org by which to explore Gainsborough’s work, I’d suggest:

Rambling 3

The Rev. John Chafy Playing the Violoncello in a Landscape [c.1750–2, Tate]

which is as eccentric as “Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen” (1773, Tate) by Reynolds that we discussed last time: why is a religious chap out in the middle of countryside-nowhere playing a viola?!

In his biography of the artist “Gainsborough: A Portrait”, James Hamilton describes

“With music and perhaps birdsong, Chafy, curate of Great Bricett, a village north-east of Sudbury on the road to Needham Market, is shown celebrating enjoyment in life.” (p.91)

And although an early painting, Gainsborough is only 23, it brings so much together.

There is the landscape that Gainsborough loved to paint throughout his life (indeed would have preferred to paint if there hadn’t been money in portraiture).

Note also the ‘cross’ by which the painting is planned: as the tree trunk divides the canvas diagonally one way, the foliage into the architecture divide it the other, seemingly separating culture and nature.

Then, colour-wise, the deep warm hue of the violincello balances a patch of dramatically blue sky, whilst the Rev. himself is in stark black and white.

The classical ruin we see refers to the history of art and music:

The figure in the niche holds a lyre, the attribute not only of Apollo, God of the Arts, but also of Terpsichore, the Muse of dancing and song, and Erato, the Muse of lyric and love poetry.

Yet the painting also has the very contemporary vibe of French artist Antoine Watteau:

Watteau, celebrated for his colourful and delicately sophisticated work, introduced a new type of subject into eighteenth century French painting: the fêtes galantes. These were scenes in which exquisitely dressed young people idle away time in dreamy, romantic, pastoral settings.

This must have appealed to the British sense of theatricality, dressing up and play that has so often appeared in our ramblings.

Rambling 4

Indeed there is a print at National Galleries Scotland of Watteau at his easel with his friend and patron playing a viola out in the forest that Gainsborough may well have seen and found as a source of inspiration.

That portrayal of the individual in a landscape was truly fashionable. This was the Age of Sensibility, when the harmony of culture and nature reflected the beauty of the soul.

Gainsborough, Thomas, 1727-1788; Portrait of a Woman

Portrait of a Woman [1750; Yale Centre]

Against a classical and landscape backdrop, this fashionable young woman holds a book on her lap as she looks towards us. The emergence of the novel in English literature raised “new ideals of personal virtue based around emotional sensitivity and the imagination” – another aspect of this Age of Sensibility.

It’s too easy to see Gainsborough’s paintings as ‘fashionable’ in any simplistic way though, for as a student in London he had been part of Hogarth’s circle – those young artists seeking modern ways of painting – and so the fact that he gives a book to the woman in this picture is important, it’s to be noted; it reflects a time of popular, socio-cultural change.

It was probably through another artist of Hogarth’s circle, Francis Hayman, that Gainsborough learnt of Watteau. We might also remember that Gainsborough would have assisted Hayman in painting the decorative scenes displayed at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – a haven of nightlife, fireworks, supper parties and music that no doubt Gainsborough, ever vital, would have enjoyed immensely.

This returns us to the Rev. Chafy painting, for Gainsborough’s greatest passion was music: Gainsborough is known to have played several instruments with ‘native skill’ and was an active member of the Ipswich Musical Club (described by Hamilton as “a good excuse for some lively men to gather together to drink and play”, ie. rather rowdy!) which may have been where he met Chafy, making this a portrait of both friendship and shared enthusiasm – giving it that “fresh, informal and unselfconscious” flavour of modern, contemporary life that Rothenstein notes.

To keep to the music theme, we’ll end with the portrait of a composer:

Rambling 6

Ignatius Sancho (1729? – 1780) [1768, National Gallery of Canada]

Ignatius Sancho had the most extraordinary life. Born on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic and orphaned at the age of two he was brought to England where, in time, with a patron in Lord Montagu and access to the libraries, he began working at Montagu House as a valet, which is where this portrait was painted by Gainsborough.

As James Hamilton notes,

“Sancho, like Gainsborough, was part of the flow of thespians, artists and literati, and thus it is likely that he and Gainsborough were already acquainted, by reputation if not in person, before he walked through the door carrying the Duchess of Montagu’s mantua. Sancho’s portrait, therefore, might be classed as the portrait of a friend and fellow artist, rather than a portrait of a client sitter’s servant.” (p.242)

Active in the anti-slavery movement and increasingly renowned as a ‘man of letters’, Sancho would go on to publish A Theory of Music, two plays and

Rambling 7

Minuets Cotillons & country Dances for the Violin, Mandolin, German Flute, & Harpsichord. Composed by an African. [1775; British Library]

The “Minuets” can be heard on YouTube.

In “Ignatius Sancho: African Man of Letters” (unfortunately out of print, NPG) Reyahn King notes, according to Wikipedia, that: Gainsborough conveys both the warmth and humour of Sancho’s personality and his refined gentlemanly qualities.


Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings do seem to bring a bright, personal freshness to the long tradition of portraiture in Britain.

Yet his true love was for landscape painting – a genre in the ascendant in British art despite Joshua Reynolds who, as President of the new Royal Academy, diagnosed the necessity for History Painting – the results of which we’ll look at next week.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (23)

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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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