Since the beginning of the 20th century, family photo albums have documented the lives of families and individuals, often providing a visual narrative of the birth and ageing of different generations. Before the advent of photography, however, family albums did not exist and only an elite privileged few could afford to have their lives documented by portrait artists. In the 18th century, only royalty had the means to commission family portraits, with the exception of one man: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88).
Primarily a landscape painter, Gainsborough painted and drew portraits of his immediate and extended family throughout his lifetime. Amounting to at least 50 artworks, the National Portrait Gallery has chosen to chart the career of one of Britain’s greatest painters from youth to maturity in their winter exhibition Gainsborough’s Family Album. Set out in chronological order, the paintings show the people who meant a lot to Gainsborough, particularly his daughters who grow from young children to beautiful, independent women.
The exhibition begins with The Artist with his Wife and Eldest Daughter Mary, which Gainsborough painted at the age of 22 shortly before his daughter died in her second year of life. Principally a landscape painter, preferring them over “damn’d faces”, Gainsborough combined the two genres in this painting, as he does with a handful of other portraits, to create a composition that portrays the couple as fashionable gentlefolk enjoying the countryside. Despite being middle-class, the outfits and posture of Gainsborough and his family suggest their aspirations to gentility.
Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk in 1727, the youngest son of a large family. Some of his brothers and sisters feature in portraits throughout the exhibition as well as their own children. As a child as young as ten, Thomas impressed his father with his drawing ability and was allowed to leave home in 1740 to seek an apprenticeship in London. Under the tutelage of the Frenchman Hubert-François Bourguignon (1699-1733), more commonly known as Gravelot, Gainsborough initially studied engraving. Nonetheless, his passion for painting thrived after he became associated with William Hogarth (1697-1764). Like Hogarth, some of Gainsborough’s work was produced for the Foundling Hospital set up by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram (1668-1751) in 1739.
Not all of Gainsborough’s siblings feature in the exhibition, but those that do show off his skill at capturing likenesses. Although a landscape artist at heart, Gainsborough often focused solely on the faces, leaving the clothing unfinished and the backgrounds bare. It is thought Gainsborough may have deliberately left these incomplete to distinguish between private and commissioned work. On the other hand, Gainsborough’s main focus would have been on commissioned works, resulting in private portraits being abandoned.
A self-portrait from 1759 shows the type of backgrounds Gainsborough combined with portraits should he have the time or inclination to finish them. His painting of his brother Humphrey, however, represents the unfinished look of many of Gainsborough’s works in this exhibition. Unlike the elaborate outfits popular at the time, Humphrey, a non-conformist minister, wears black and looks piously into the distance. Susan Gardiner, however, the daughter of his sister Susanna, has a tenser facial expression, perhaps caused by the boredom of posing for too long.
Later in his career, Gainsborough painted his sister Sarah, also known as Sally, in highly fashionable attire. Being twelve years older than her brother, Sally is getting on in years, evidenced by her greying hair, partially hidden under a lace cap. Positioned next to her on the wall at the National Portrait Gallery is her husband, Philip Dupont. Unlike Sally, Gainsborough painted his brother-in-law wearing drab, unfashionable clothing, suggesting unfavourable feelings between the two men.
Other paintings of members of Gainsborough’s large family include his father John, the postmaster of Sudbury; his cousin Henry Burrough, the vicar of Wisbech; his brother John, also known as Scheming Jack due to his money-making ways, his sister Susanna; and Susanna’s son Edward. Interestingly, the portrait of an unnamed youth referred to as The Pitminster Boy, is also included amongst the family portraits. The boy would have worked as a servant for the artist, responsible for carrying painting equipment whenever Gainsborough desired to paint en plein air. During the 18th century, the term “family” was much broader than today’s sense, encompassing non-blood relations, servants and other members of the household.
In 1746, Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort (1707-1745). Margaret and Gainsborough’s relationship was not at its best for the majority of their lives, however, it improved in later years. Most portraits of Margaret were produced in the latter period and Gainsborough began gifting Margaret a small painting of herself annually on their wedding anniversary.
In all her portraits, Margaret is fashionably dressed, such as the 1777 painting produced for her 50th birthday where she wears a black mantilla. In this particular artwork, Gainsborough sits his wife in the pose of a classic statue of Pudicity, the goddess of modesty and chastity, or wifely virtue.
Initially, the married couple lived in Sudbury, but in 1752, they moved to Ipswich along with their two daughters, Mary (1750-1826), named for her deceased older sister, and Margaret (1752-1820), named for her mother. During his time in the county town, Gainsborough began to receive more commissions for private portraits, however, the majority of these clients were local merchants and squires and, therefore, did not pay generously for the artworks.
Gainsborough’s situation gradually improved after moving to Bath, the largest city in Somerset, where he was inspired by the paintings of Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Gainsborough admired the Flemish baroque painter so much, viewing his paintings as examples of perfection. Reportedly, Gainsborough’s final words on his deathbed in 1788 were “van Dyck was right”.
Whilst in Bath, Gainsborough began to attract a more fashionable clientele, thus his financial situation began to recover. He began submitting paintings to the Society of Arts exhibition in London, now known as the Royal Academy of Arts, of which he was a founding member along with Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Whilst these exhibitions gave him national recognition, Gainsborough eventually broke away from the Royal Academy, unhappy with the ways in which his paintings were being displayed.
The Gainsborough family’s final move was to London in 1774, where they resided in Schomberg House, Pall Mall, in which he held his first private exhibition in 1784. Whilst continuing to enjoy landscape painting, Gainsborough’s portraits were now of some of the most elite people in the country. These included Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), the youngest son of the famous composer, George III (1738-1820) and Charlotte, the Queen Consort (1744-1818).
Of all his family members, none feature so much in this exhibition than his daughters Mary and Margaret. From young children to independent ladies, Gainsborough documents the changes in their appearance as they grow up, the same way a parent would record their child’s progress with a camera today. Mostly, the girls are shown together, suggesting they got on amicably.
The earliest painting of the two girls together is the lifesize The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly. Set in the light of the summer evening, it is a representation of childhood spontaneity. The landscape in the background almost looks otherworldly, suggesting that in their young minds they are in a fairytale world rather than their back garden. The youngest daughter Margaret, who would have been three or four years old at the time, reaches out to touch a butterfly. Mary, on the other hand, tries to pull her sister away, noticing that the butterfly is perched on a prickly thistle. Perhaps, being older, Mary is more aware of the world around her than Margaret.
Other paintings of the young girls remain unfinished, such as the one their father began in 1759. Also known as The Artist’s Daughters playing with a Cat, the cat in question is hard to see, the outline is only faintly drawn in. Another unfinished portrait of Mary and Margaret shows the older of the two adjusting the other’s hair. Although Gainsborough is remarkably observant in his oil painting, the picture was damaged after being cut in half, trimmed and wrongly reassembled by a Victorian collector. Rather than being eye to eye, Mary would originally have been taller than her younger sister.
Gainsborough was lucky to have two such willing child models to paint during his early career. As well as portraits in general, Gainsborough experimented with a genre known as fancy painting. This was a type of 18th-century art that portrayed scenes of everyday life but with components of imagination or storytelling. Gainsborough’s fancy paintings usually involved peasant or beggar children, for example, the portrait of Margaret dressed up as a gleaner picking grain in the fields. Similarly to the previous painting, this one was cut in half and the section containing Mary, who presumably was also dressed as a farm worker, has been lost.
As the girls got older, Gainsborough worried about their economic security and tried to get them interested in landscape painting so that they could make a living. Although neither girl became a painter, one portrait of them shows that they were encouraged to practice drawing. In The Artist’s Daughters at their Drawing, the adolescent sisters retain some of the child-like facial features but their fashionable clothing suggests they are getting ever closer to maturity. This painting was also a compositional experiment for Gainsborough who originally painted Margaret facing her sister. A ghostly figure of this first attempt is beginning to show through the top layer of paint.
By the end of the exhibition, Mary and Margaret Gainsborough have grown into beautiful women and, although they did not fulfil their father’s dream of becoming painters, lived independently from their parents. A full-length painting shows them as fashionable women of society. Mary, perhaps being older, wears the grander dress, however, Margaret’s clothing is also of good quality. Dogs in paintings are often used to represent fidelity and no doubt this was Gainsborough’s aim in this image. The sisters remained loyal to each other throughout their whole lives. Margaret never married and Mary’s marriage to the oboeist Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), an associate of her father, only lasted a disastrous few months. As a result, Mary developed severe mental health problems and was looked after by Margaret for the rest of their lives.
Throughout Gainsborough’s career, he only took on one apprentice, Gainsborough Dupont (1754-97), the eldest son of his sister Sarah. Beginning in 1772, Dupont began working for Gainsborough and continued to do so until the latter’s death in 1788. Dupont was a student of the Royal Academy schools and his artwork is similar in style to his uncle. It is thought that Dupont finished a few of Gainsborough’s paintings.
Inspired by van Dyck’s paintings and the style of dress worn during the 17th century, Gainsborough painted his teenaged apprentice in a silk blue outfit similar to those painted by his hero. Critics looked on this painting favourably claiming it to be an example of modern painting at its finest. Philip Thicknesse (1719-92), a British author and friend of Gainsborough, announced the painting was “more like the work of God than man.”
Gainsborough painted another portrait of his apprentice after he had been accepted by the Royal Academy schools in which he looks like a fashionably dressed young man. Although it is not a finished work of art, it is one that Gainsborough was particularly pleased with. Before he died, he placed the portrait on his easel as if to say that was what he wished to be remembered for.
As well as portraits of his family, Gainsborough produced a few of himself, including an early attempt of himself wearing a tricorn hat. It is interesting to see how he ages, or at least how Gainsborough sees himself at different ages. Without photographs, it is impossible to determine how he truly looked, however, the exhibition includes a portrait of the artist by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), which suggests Gainsborough captured a good likeness.
Similarly to present day family albums, Gainsborough also produced paintings of his pets. Titled Tristram and Fox, although whether this is the correct title is debatable, Gainsborough produced remarkably realistic depictions of two of the family pets. Fox, a spitz, sits on the left and is the more dominant of the two dogs, which may say something about his character. Tristram, on the other hand, a spaniel, is slightly hidden due to his dark colouring.
Art historian Michael Rosenthal (b1950) describes Gainsborough as “one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time.” Unfortunately, Gainsborough believed he had not reached his true potential, as he explained to Sir Joshua Reynolds on his deathbed shortly before he died from terminal cancer. Gainsborough wished his paintings to be judged in comparison to the standard of van Dyck, which blinded him to his own talent.
The National Portrait Gallery shows the British painter from a new and unique perspective. Rather than concentrating on skill, style or life achievements as many other exhibitions do, the NPG has created a much more personal display. As well as being able to appreciate his artwork, visitors are introduced to the artist himself and his family. It tells the story of Thomas Gainsborough’s life, both his career and life at home.
With a five star rating from more than one major newspaper, Gainsborough’s Family Album is a must-see for 18th-century art lovers. Focusing on portraits, the artist’s landscape talents also shine through. Although the exhibition lacks Gainsborough’s most famous works, there are enough paintings of extraordinary beauty to make up for this.
Gainsborough’s Family Album will be showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 3rd February 2019 in the Wolfson Gallery. Tickets cost £14 but members of the gallery may visit for free.