Gainsborough, A Portrait by James Hamilton is much, much more than a biography of a painter, though if it were only that it would still be a masterpiece of its genre. Thomas Gainsborough was born in Suffolk in 1727 and died in London in 1788. He spent his early years in Suffolk, was apprenticed in London as an engraver. He moved back to Suffolk and lived again in the family home. He was already painting. He seemed not perfectly suited to the messy, fiddly practices associated with engraving. He gradually amassed commissions, almost by increment from sitters of ever higher rank.
A lengthy stay in Bath was purely for professional reasons, but London and Suffolk were always a draw. By then he was a wealthy and successful painter of portraits, who dabbled in landscapes on the side. That last phrase, incidentally, is apposite since his wife, Margaret, used to pocket all of the fees he charged for portraits. What he received for landscapes he did not disclose to her, only to his own pocket.
If you have ever looked at Gainsborough's portraits and saw that first, they were rather dark, or second, the forest looks all together too round it to be true, or third, it seems rather that the feet emerging from the bottom of the dresses appear a tad too small, then you will find your explanations in James Hamilton's book. The light is problematic, perhaps, because these pictures were not painted en plein aire , but by candlelight in the studio. A sense of rounding in the trees might result from the fact that he often did not paint real trees, but miniature tabletop settings of coal, twigs and – yes – broccoli. Now that explains quite a lot. Observation number three results from his very businesslike procedures with his sitters. To minimize their discomfort, he concentrated on their faces and heads. After they had left his studio, he would then fill in the rest of the body, often using clothes he kept on dummies, the same dress sometimes appearing in portraits of different women. The mannequins obviously had no feet, so these were probably added with a little imagination, hence the sometimes awkward proportions.
But there is far more in Gainesboro, A Portrait than detail of the artist's commissions, works and techniques. James Hamilton provide is nothing less than a rounded portrayal of English life in the mid-eighteenth century. In the artist's letters we soon learn to recognize the euphemisms that are used to disguise the licentiousness that seems to occupy most of these men's waking hours. In letters, d-mn is not a curse, and the word swords – or other obvious euphemisms – are often underlined, right up to the hilts. Not subtle, but socially acceptable according to the mores of the day, it seems.
The book has is a wonderful portrayal of small town life in Sudbury, Suffolk. We sense the nouveau riche pretensions of Bath and we can almost feel London expanding amid the stories of Gainsborough's Pall Mall house and Richmond Hill getaway. But what is so wonderful about James Hamilton's book is that its erudition, which at times is breathtaking in its detail, is so beautifully embroidered into the narrative that all we received is a rounded, complete insight into the way Gainsborough lived, did business, and related to people, as well as seeing a detailed picture of what he painted and how he worked.
Of particular interest was his and his contemporaries' touting of business from the rich and famous. Obviously, a commission from the Royals, especially the King, was what really put you on the map and, as ever in Britain, a social pecking order made the achievement of status easier for some than others. Gainsborough was from quite lowly origins and did not attend prestigious institutions to learn his trade, so he had to work for the elite status that eventually came his way. It is worth noting however that he was never knighted, unlike his rival Reynolds, being the journeyman of the trade in the celebrity likeness business. But he did make a good living, which he largely handed over to his wife, who stashed the money away, lest her husband blow it on wine, women or song, or even the expensive musical instruments he bought, but never learn to play.
Gainsborough rubbed shoulders with the elite. He was friends with other artists and with composers, such as Abel and JC Bach. But one feels his feet never really left the ground, even when parking his sword. And as such, he was not given to visionary statements in his art. He clearly liked to paint landscapes but found he could only sell them on the back of his portrait trade. Thus, he devoted his professional time to that which would be better his life, leaving intellectual challenge at least for later.
Interestingly, James Hamilton makes the point that Gainsborough the artist would have found work in any age. His approach would always have found a clentele and his style would have adapted, whilst more visionary artists, despite their massive achievements, could not have pursued their particular visions in a different age. Gainsborough thus becomes a kind of model modern artworld businessman, pragmatic, competent, in demand and commercially aware of the success he achieved. Well, at least his wife was.
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