Gainsborough in London | The Later Years

Susan Sloman, author of Gainsborough in London, introduces our blog readers to her long-awaited book, which follows the pre-eminent artist during his last years – looking closely at the paintings, drawings and prints, as well as his relationships with patrons and sitters, and with the musicians, writers and actors who made up his closest circle of friends.

Here, Sloman explores how Gainsborough’s brush captured and elevated members of the royal family, as well as those who existed at the fringes of court life, and the ways in which he used his connections in the press to emphasise the singularity of his talent and breadth of his artistic repertoire.

Susan Sloman delves into the later years of Thomas Gainsborough’s life in London …

The artist and poet William Blake grumbled that “Reynolds & Gainsborough Blotted & Blurred one against the other & Divided all the English World between them”. Given the dominance of these two figures in the late eighteenth-century British art world, it is surprising that Gainsborough chose to live and work away from London, in the west-country town of Bath, for the middle period of his life. When he did move back to the capital in 1774, his sights were set on the establishment of a studio that would be accessible to members of the royal family and within easy reach of the recently founded Royal Academy. The property Gainsborough selected, part of Schomberg House, Pall Mall, was situated between the Academy’s exhibition room (then at 126 Pall Mall) and St James’s Palace, and close to other royal residences. His neighbours in the street were retailers and professionals offering an enticing range of goods and services from pastry-cooking and millinery to dentistry.

Gainsborough in London sets the scene for the last fifteen years of the painter’s life, showing how he adapted to a life in which he was now as famous as many of his monied and noble clients. Gainsborough had to concede the official post of king’s ‘Principal Painter’ to Reynolds, but it was he who created several of the most memorable royal portraits of the period and won the personal respect of both the monarch and the wayward Prince of Wales. His friends and patrons included the musicians Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, key figures in Queen Charlotte’s band, a royal page and one of the royal gardeners at Kew.

Painting Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott

Even people at the fringes of court life such as Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott, mistress of the Prince of Wales, were elevated by the power of Gainsborough’s brush. His allusions to Van Dyck’s portraits of members of the Stuart court lent his sitters an air of seventeenth-century opulence and glamour, despite the very different character of his own times. Mrs Elliott was painted twice, firstly at full-length for the 4th Earl of Cholmondeley, and again, about three years later, in a ‘head’ sized portrait for the Prince. The full-length, exhibited at the Academy in 1778, was painted when she was pregnant by Cholmondeley. She is shown wearing a magnificent gold-coloured gown, the outer skirt of which has a scalloped edge in imitation of a peeress’s robe. The train is swept up in front in what may be a deliberate allusion to her pregnancy. Mrs Elliott was not, like some others in her situation, an admired stage performer; she was simply famous for being famous, like many a modern celebrity. Her story is a reminder of attitudes that prevailed in the pre-Victorian era: in 1781 she fed news of her latest pregnancy to the press and in 1782 registered the child as a daughter of the Prince with a full set of royal names, Georgina Augusta Frederica. No-one in authority seems to have turned a hair. Visitors to Gainsborough’s house, however, must have viewed the second portrait of Mrs Elliott with particular interest.

Like Mrs Elliott, Gainsborough had friends in the press and through them he dropped hints about the progress of pictures, carefully including the names of eminent subjects. His supporters reminded the world at large that this artist was unusual, in that he was equally skilled in painting landscapes and portraits that both could be seen on display at Schomberg House as well as in the annual public exhibitions. Gainsborough in London explains how he and other leading London painters arranged their premises for the reception of visitors, comparing, for example, rooms belonging to Reynolds, Benjamin West and John Hoppner. None of the studios and showrooms has survived, but maps, surveys, deeds and contemporary descriptions have been used to reconstruct and reimagine the architecture, furnishings and the lighting of these buildings.

‘Universal Genius’

In the 1780s journalist friends increasingly drew attention to the ‘universality’ of Gainsborough’s genius. The concept of universal genius is expressed in Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise of Painting, as published in English translation in 1721, where it is explained that the greatest artists are those who master all subjects, rather than one, such as portraiture. In the last decade Gainsborough experimented, not just with landscape, but with an ever-widening repertoire, including coastal scenes, sporting and even classical subjects. These late experiments were matched by an increasingly unconventional technique. What some critics regarded as negligence is in fact a conscious exposure of the ‘hand’ of the master, with contrasting areas of finish and unfinish across the canvas. As Reynolds acknowledged in his tribute after Gainsborough’s death, years of study and hard work lay behind the bravura brushstrokes and it was for this reason that his style was so difficult to copy.

Thomas Gainsborough, Seashore with Fishermen, c.1781/82. Oil on canvas, 101.9 x 127.6 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection.

Gainsborough Dupont

Gainsborough was unusual in not employing a studio of assistants and pupils and it was only his nephew Gainsborough Dupont who had to try to replicate these painterly effects. Dupont was retiring by nature and is rarely mentioned in contemporary documents or news reports, but when he died prematurely in 1797, he was buried at Kew in Gainsborough’s grave. It is suggested in Gainsborough in London that in life, as in death, Dupont was a surrogate for the son Gainsborough never had, playing an important part in the smooth-running of the practice. The fact that Dupont worked side by side with Gainsborough on one of the most important of the artist’s commissions, his full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte (now housed in the Royal Collection), is proof of the trust that must have subsisted between the two. 

Much has been written about Gainsborough since his death in 1788, but my book makes use of previously unpublished images and documents and explores unfamiliar contemporary concepts, such as universal genius, that help to explain how and why he painted as he did.

Susan Sloman is an independent art historian, cataloguer and adviser, specialising in British drawings and miniature portraits, and has a particular interest in eighteenth-century studio practice.

Gainsborough in London is distributed by Yale University Press for Modern Art Press. Find it online or at your favourite local bookshop.

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Featured image credit: Thomas Gainsborough, Seashore with Fishermen, c.1781/82. Oil on canvas, 101.9 x 127.6 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection.

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