In the autumn of 1774, when Gainsborough decided to move from his established base in Bath to London, he was already an in-demand artist who could ask a hundred guineas for a full-length portrait (Romney, at the same time, was charging forty). Gainsborough had thrived in the fashionable city of Bath, finding eager clients among the wealthy taking the waters and visiting for the Season. The Royal Academy was established in London in December 1768, with Gainsborough as a founding member. Its annual exhibition was a great attraction and a valuable marketplace for artists. It therefore made sense for an artist who specialised in portraits of the well-to-do to relocate to the capital. Gainsborough situated himself in Pall Mall (an area which Sloman examines in some detail) where the wealthy lived alongside royalty— both groups potential portrait customers. It would appear that he was attempting to place himself at the forefront of the contemporary art world. Reynolds, the first President of the RA, had been knighted in 1769, and his studio in Leicester Fields was a magnet both for his patrons and for those who found his acquaintance desirable. With a similar establishment in Pall Mall, Gainsborough was announcing himself as an equal.
Gainsborough quickly found the success that he so keenly sought. Within a few years he was engaged by the Royal Family, with a 1773 commission to paint the King’s younger brother the Duke of Cumberland and his wife, while he later also painted Queen Charlotte and her daughters. In time he would be hired to paint the King himself, the ultimate prize for a portrait artist of the period. Gainsborough produced many portraits of the social elite, including merchants and traders, key theatrical figures, and even the Prince of Wales’ mistresses. Such was the demand that simply to be the subject of a Gainsborough painting gave the sitter a social prestige easily recognised by contemporaries.
The portrait is very much a compact between artist and subject. In the context of the world in which Gainsborough moved, it had become a symbol of social importance, both in terms of its cost (as we have seen earlier) and the subjects themselves. Harold Rosenberg once observed that a portrait involves “a consensual ritual encounter which is both trusting and wary: the subject submits to the artist’s interpretation while hoping to retain some control over what that interpretation will be.” Gainsborough had risen to be one of the most sought-after artists, along with Reynolds, for the way in which he depicted his subjects. He prided himself on his ability to produce a true likeness, often within a setting which would show the subject at their best. He was able to bring out character traits of which the subject would approve, and which would be easily recognised by contemporary viewers. These were not portraits that attempted to look deep into personality —instead they were reflections of social expectations and standing. However, within the constraints of such an unwritten code, Gainsborough was able to give his subjects personality and self-confidence, and in some cases was able to transcend the social constraints under which he operated.
A stunning example of this is the portrait Mrs Grace ‘Dally’ Dalrymple Elliott (1777-8). Mrs Elliott was a celebrated courtesan, the mistress of first Lord Cholmondeley who commissioned the portrait, and later of the Prince of Wales. According to Sloman this portrait was first shown at the RA in 1778, when she was six months pregnant. Mrs Elliott is shown standing within an enclosed space, a stormy landscape visible through an open door to her side. Her clothes are the height of fashion, her white satin dress edged with lace and frills, a deep golden shawl positioned so as to obscure her pregnancy. Her hair, piled high in the latest French style, further emphasises her standing. Clothes are not simply a covering for the body, especially within the context of a portrait. They are conveyers of messages, in this case that the subject is worthy, not simply of being painted by the leading artist of the time, but also of the status to which she aspires. Mrs Elliott is portrayed as the equal of anyone within her social context —the picture’s production and style of execution serve to confirm the legitimacy of her position.
If one compares the portrait of Mrs Elliott to an earlier portrait of the Duchess of Cumberland (1775), there are some startling and significant similarities. Both show their subjects within an enclosed space, with an open view of the landscape behind them. However, of greatest importance are the clothes. Like Mrs Elliott, the Duchess of Cumberland is adorned with the most opulent fashion, wearing a dress of deep red velvet which opens to reveal a complicated pattern of silk and lace —Gainsborough thereby conveying the message that she is not some distant regal figure, but likewise a woman of her time. Although a crown is placed near the duchess to emphasise her position as the King’s sister-in-law, the overall impression is of a lady of fashion and discernment. This is a radical departure from traditional portrayals of royal figures, consistent with King George’s policy —together with his wife Charlotte, he was keen to spread the message that they were the same as any other family, a myth further popularised by Queen Victoria.
Although Gainsborough is best known for his portraits, he excelled at landscapes, albeit mainly constructed ones. These were the so-called ‘fancy’ pictures, which gave the artist free rein for his imagination, in terms of both subject and execution. Sloman devotes an entire chapter to these pictures, beginning with a helpful definition of the term: “In essence, the fancy figure was an image of a person, often a peasant or country girl, that was not primarily intended to be a portrait.” The first such work which Gainsborough showed, entitled A Shepherd, sadly now lost, was at the 1781 RA exhibition, and was considered by critics to be one of its outstanding works, although his full-length portraits of King George and Queen Charlotte were also on display.
One such ‘fancy’ picture, Girl with Pigs (Pigs and Milk) 1781-82, was on show at the RA the following year, where one critic called it “the best picture in the present exhibition.” A young peasant girl is seated in a rural landscape, watching some healthy free-roaming pigs drinking from a bowl of milk. The country setting suggests plenty, but it is more likely that Gainsborough intended the opposite. The girl’s pose is reminiscent of many depictions of the figure of Melancholy, a common theme at the time. Pigs have often been signifiers of poverty, and it would appear that Gainsborough was using the animals to emphasise the main theme of the picture: that even within the seemingly prosperous-looking rural landscape, hardship and melancholy are still present.
This theme was taken up a year later in his more ambitious work, Fighting Dogs (1782-3). Although at first glance this might appear to be about animal cruelty, its theme is not so simplistic. One of the dogs’ boy owners is about to break up the fight with a stick as the other restrains him, which may be interpreted as a visual metaphor for loyalty, each boy acting to protect his canine companion. However, it can also be argued that Gainsborough was going further. Each boy-dog pair has a similar colouring, the dark-haired representing the town, and the red-haired the countryside. The town dog has a collar, while the auburn-coated dog has none, suggesting that he works while the other is tame. The red-haired boy who wields the stick is coarsely clothed as a shepherd-boy, his sheep grazing in the background. The town boy’s lace cuff is visible, which, in turn, suggests that he might be some kind of apprentice, one critic identifying him as a butcher’s boy. Whatever the complete interpretation, this picture shows Gainsborough utilising a format that allows him to make a comment on contemporary life, while also demonstrating his versatility in genres other than portraiture.
In the final years of his life Gainsborough extended his repertoire of subjects. He painted coastal scenes, episodes of country life, like A Fox Hunt (1785), and new perspectives on old themes, such as The Mall in St James’s Park, 1783. This particular work clearly demonstrates that, even towards the end of his career, Gainsborough was pushing himself and his art into unexplored territory. What is unusual about The Mall is its setting and the prominence given to female figures. Usually such scenes of people socialising outdoors were composed of formal, well-cared-for gardens inhabited by well-dressed men accompanied by chaperoned ladies. In contrast, Gainsborough has constructed a landscape of overgrown trees where cattle are roaming free. Instead of a mix of male and female, the centre of the picture has a group of three women—possibly a reference to the Three Graces—while all around them are other groups of promenading women. Only one male figure can be seen, placed behind the central three women. One newspaper described it as “a very curious picture of the Park.” And it is curious, for this work is not an attempt to record a real place or people. The whole scene is an imaginary construct, one which allows the artist to demonstrate his decorative skills, while celebrating the importance of women within the social hierarchy. The women depicted here are clearly fashionable and well-off, and the absence of their male counterparts may suggest a level of independence far from the reality of the time.
A companion piece, completed just a year later in 1784, is even more extraordinary. It is Gainsborough’s only painting with a classical theme: Diana and Actaeon. The story, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is well known. The hunter Actaeon has stumbled upon Diana and her attendants bathing. Diana, the hunter goddess most commonly associated with chastity, is horrified to have been seen by Actaeon and splashes him with water, turning him into a stag —he is then torn to pieces by his own pack of dogs. Gainsborough has chosen to show the moment when Diana casts her spell and Actaeon grows the horns of a stag. There are two well-worked drawings of the same scene which clearly show that Gainsborough was meticulous in working through the structure of the picture. However, the really striking aspects are both the tonal qualities of the paint and the free handling of the human forms. The whole landscape surrounding the pool is painted in autumnal browns and ochre, the only slightly visible colour being the dull red of a discarded robe lying on the shoreline. Some of the figures are hazy, a few brushstrokes merely suggesting the outlines of the female form. To the artist’s contemporaries these would certainly have appeared unfinished, but the effect is that of a moment frozen in time. The picture is unlike anything else that Gainsborough produced, a powerful artistic statement that demonstrates his ability to combine a classical narrative with the sensitivity of a familiar English landscape.
Gainsborough was very much a creature of his time and had to conform to the conventions imposed upon him, but within those constraints he developed a distinctive style that allowed him to display a high level of technical competence. The depictions of female fashion in his portraits suited his delicate style perfectly, and he was able to build a successful career by painting the great and the good, all while following his own particular vision of the successful portrait. This book is an exacting and worthwhile exploration of Gainsborough’s final years, and must surely contribute to solidifying his position as a great English artist.--Paul Flux