Monday, 26 November 2018

Gainsborough's Family Album

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly. Thomas Gainsborough, c. National Gallery.

Today, surrounded by images of family and friends, it’s easy to forget how rare it was for people in the 18th c to have any form of likeness of those close to them. Royalty and the rich could commission portraits for posterity, but the majority of ordinary people went unrecorded. This is what makes the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition so unusual – and special. Gainsborough’s Family Album brings together for the very first time virtually all of the artist’s images of himself and his extended family across the years – some 50 in all. The curators have gathered them from far and near – one was rediscovered in private hands just weeks ago, having last been seen in public in 1882. We see affectionate portrayals of his daughters Margaret and Mary as they grow from little girls chasing a butterfly, to their transformation into young ladies, sumptuously dressed and ready to take their places in society. His wife, also Margaret, is there, growing greyer over the years, and his brother John, known as Scheming Jack because of his many failed money-making schemes, also puts in an appearance, along with the family’s dogs.
Tristram and Fox, by Thomas Gainsborough, Image c.Tate London
Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 88) was one of Britain’s most successful eighteenth century portraitists, a favourite of royalty,  but in his private correspondence he lamented the need to earn his living from an endless parade of ‘damn’d Faces’ when he’d have preferred to concentrate on landscapes. However, the faces were where the money was. His father, a Suffolk clothes merchant, had been forced into bankruptcy, and had to be rescued by a wealthy nephew. The shadow of this must have played a part in young Thomas’s pursuit of fame and fortune. He began young. Having shown some artistic talent, he was apprenticed when he was 13 to an illustrator in London. By the unusually early age of 16 he set up his own studio in Hatton Garden, and three years later met and married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of Henry, 3rd Duke of Beaufort, whose family gave her an annuity of £200 for the rest of her life. He celebrates his new family in a rural setting with their first child, who died while young.
The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary, Thomas Gainsborough,c National Gallery, London
The couple returned to Sudbury where two more daughters were born. Gainsborough quickly realised that there were not enough potential customers for his paintings in the little town, and in 1752 the family moved to nearby Ipswich, where he developed a moderately successful practice. He experimented artistically, using the family as subjects.
Mary and Margaret Gainsborough with a Cat c.National Gallery, London
 By 1858 he was running out of potential clients, so spent a trial season in fashionable Bath. The following year he settled there with his family, leasing a house in a stylish part of town. This was large enough to accommodate other members of his extended family, including his widowed sister, Mary Gibbon, who set up a millinery shop in part of the building. It also served as a showroom. Prospective customers could see examples of his work on the walls, including portraits of the artist and his wife Margaret (who acted as his business manager), enabling them to compare art with life. Work prospered and he took on his one and only apprentice, his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, whom he also painted, looking as if he’d just stepped out of the court of Charles I.
Gainsborough Dupont, the Artist's Nephew, by Thomas Gainsborough Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)
But a serious illness reminded him of life’s precariousness. He arranged for his daughters to have art lessons, not just as a ladylike accomplishment, but to enable them to earn a living if necessary. He captured them practising their drawing, although it seems none of their work survived.
Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters, at their Drawing by Gainsborough c Worcester Art Museum
Having been a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768, Gainsborough’s final move was to London in 1774, and a magnificent new residence at Schomberg House in Pall Mall. Here he mixed with the highest in the land – not bad for a provincial painter from Sudbury. This formal, full-length portrait of his girls greeted visitors – proof that they, and their family, had arrived.
Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters, by Gainsborough. Private Collection
His wife, Margaret, was enjoying their new life as well. She's shown dressed in the very height of fashion, wearing an elaborate lace cap and a fur-lined wrap.
Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Wife, by Gainsborough. Courtauld Gallery, London
By now it was time for her daughters to marry, and Mary fell in love with an oboist, Johann Christian Fischer, of whom her father apparently didn't approve. The marriage lasted a matter of months. Mary was having mental health problems, and she moved in with Margaret, who cared for her for the rest of her life. The grand double portrait is the only one of the family paintings to have been completely finished by Gainsborough. As we see in the exhibition, with these he usually concentrated on the face, hands, and garments, and filled in the background with a sketchier treatment. It may have been his way of saying these were private, and not for sale, but perhaps could also reflect the pressure put upon him to get back to the money-making business of commissioned portrait painting. (The freer brush strokes crept into some of these paintings as well, prompting complaints from clients.)
Self-portrait by Gainsborough 1758 - 59 c. National Portrait Gallery
In 1788 he realised he was suffering from terminal cancer, and began to put his affairs in order. He wrote to his life-long rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, inviting him to visit, and confided his great regret of dying before, as he saw it, his talents had reached their full potential. Wishing to control his posthumous image, he identified the self portrait he wished to have engraved as his memorial, and asked posterity to judge him by the standards of the artist he most revered, Sir Anthony van Dyck.  He died with an earlier, unfinished painting of his nephew on an easel by his bed, in the hope that he would be his artistic heir. Sadly, Dupont outlived his uncle by just a decade.
Gainsborough Dupont, the Artist's Nephew, c.Tate, London

Gainsborough's Family Album is at the National Portrait Gallery until Feb 3 2019. £12.50 – £16.00

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