1727 - 1788

Thomas Gainsborough

Baptised at the Independent Meeting-House at Friars Street, Sudbury, Suffolk on 14 May 1727, fifth son and ninth child of John Gainsborough (c.1683-1748), publican, clothier and postmaster, and his wife, Mary (c.1690–1755), daughter of the Revd Henry Burrough. He attended Sudbury grammar school where his uncle the Revd Humphrey Burrough was headmaster, and George Williams Fulcher (1795-1855) refers to stories of him playing truant in order to draw in the fields around the town. Gainsborough's paternal uncle Thomas (1678–1739) bequeathed a total of £30 to his nephew, with which encouraged him to travel to London where he stayed with an unidentified silversmith. In order to promote the work of young landscape painters in the wake of Canaletto's recent visit to Britain, Edward Haytley, Richard Wilson, and Samuel Wale were invited to donate topographical roundels depicting London hospitals and Gainsborough must have been delighted at the invitation to participate. In November 1748, the last to be presented, his view of the Charterhouse Hospital, the most accomplished of the group, was installed, and there it remains. In 1746 Margaret Burr (c.1728–1798) became pregnant by Gainsborough and on 15 July of that year they married in the clandestine chapel of St George's, Curzon Street, London. Margaret was an illegitimate daughter of Henry, third Duke of Beaufort who provided Margaret with a settlement of £200 per annum. The young couple moved out of lodgings and took a house in Little Kirby Street, London. Their first child, Mary, is shown in a family group by Gainsborough shortly before she died, she was buried at St Andrew's, Holborn on 1 March 1748. At Sudbury, Gainsborough's father died on 29 October 1748 and the rate accounts show that the artist moved to the town the following Spring when he seems to have been renting a house in Friars Street from a cousin. Soon afterwards two more daughters were born in Sudbury; Mary, baptised at All Saints' on 3 February 1750, and Margaret, at St Gregory's, Sudbury on 22 August 1751. The couple lived at ‘Auberies’ an estate some two miles to the south-west of Sudbury. About 1752 Gainsborough rented a house from a Mrs Raffe at [34] Foundation Street, Ipswich, a town which offered greater intellectual stimulus than Sudbury, with a town library, a musical club of which Gainsborough was an active member, lively theological discussion, and an argumentative political life and Ipswich provided more opportunity for commissions. He contributed an illustration to Kirby's 'Dr Brook Taylor's Method of Perspective Made Easy' (Ipswich 1754). In autumn 1758 Gainsborough, perhaps to address the financial problems which beset him in the mid-1750s, felt sufficiently pleased with his development to search for work further afield. Showing considerable confidence, and charging 5 guineas a head, he moved to Bath and rented a large house owned by the Duke of Kingston in Abbey Street, he only returned to Ipswich to sell the contents of his studio when Mrs Raffe advertised for a new tenant. Bath provided Gainsborough with artistic companionship, a constantly changing source of wealthy and leisured clients, easy access to print-dealers, and remarkable collections of paintings near the city. In autumn 1763 Gainsborough became ill, the situation was compounded by his anxiety about venereal disease which he may have contracted during visits to London. His illness was so severe that the 'Bath Journal' (17 October 1763) reported his death, but he recovered. The political manoeuvrings leading to the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in December 1768 and the resulting marginalisation of his friend Joshua Kirby (1716-1774)[q.v.] must have been upsetting for Gainsborough. However he accepted the invitation to become a founder Royal Academician and submitted two of his greatest works to the first exhibition in May 1769. By 1770 Gainsborough had united in his portraiture the realism first seen in the head-and-shoulders likenesses painted during his Ipswich years with a bravura technique and elegant grandeur learned so well from Van Dyck. On 14 January 1772 he took his nephew Gainsborough Dupont [q.v.] as an apprentice. In the same year, like Nathaniel Dance-Holland (1735-1811), he failed to be included in Johann Zoffany's group portrait Academicians in the Life Class of the Royal Academy, and in the following year a disagreement with the academy led to his refusal to exhibit there. When the lease ran out on his Bath premises, he returned to London and from midsummer 1774 rented the western third of Schomberg House in Pall Mall. Through his friendship with Joshua Kirby he gained access to the court, and was quick to realise the influence of the press. Sir Henry Bate (later Bate-Dudley 1745-1824), the proprietor of the 'Morning Chronicle', became a friend and supporter. Gainsborough was persuaded to exhibit at the academy again in 1777, one critic commented that ‘'tis hard to say which Branch of the Art Mr. Gainsborough most excels, Landscape or Portrait painting’. In 1781 he exhibited King George III and Queen Charlotte which became the successors to the state portraits painted twenty years earlier by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). The portraits of the monarch and his consort provided Gainsborough's nephew Gainsborough Dupont [q.v.] with a welcome opportunity to supplement his living by making numerous copies of them. In 1784 he travelled to the Lake District with an Ipswich friend Samuel Kilderbee (1725-1813) and made a number of sketches. During the trial of Warren Hastings in April 1788, Gainsborough noticed a cold spot on his neck which it proved to be a cancerous growth. Despite the attentions of Dr John Heberden, Gainsborough's neighbour, and the surgeon John Hunter, nothing could be done to cure him. Gainsborough took refuge in his summer house at 2 The Terrace, Richmond, and died at Schomberg House on 2 August 1788. He was buried beside his old friend Joshua Kirby at St Anne's, Kew. His widow, Margaret, held a private exhibition and sale of pictures in March 1789 with further auctions at Christies on 2 June 1792, 10–11 April 1797, 10–11 May 1799, and 25 February 1831 continued the process of dispersing the contents of Gainsborough's studio. The lease on Schomberg House expired in June 1792, and early the following year Mrs Gainsborough moved to 63 Sloane Street, London and died on 18 December 1798. In Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich is a grandfather clock with two panels, reputably by Gainsborough, with six figures the names being given as Thorndike, Norris, Doctor Gainsborough, Grasstnell, Gibbs and Walter. The last named has a glass of wine in his hand, and there are two pewter pots on the table, which suggest the description of the ‘Punch Bowl Club’ Joseph Gibbs (1699-1788) was a professional musician and Gainsborough ‘did a bit on the fiddle’. The Club used to meet at ‘Mr Sparrowe’s House’ in the Butter Market now named the Ancient House.

Works by This Painter