Thomas Gainsborough 1727 – 1788

Gainsborough, was an English portrait and landscape painter, draughtsman, and printmaker. He was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, the youngest son of John Gainsborough, a weaver and maker of woollen goods. The artist spent his childhood at what is now Gainsborough’s House, on Gainsborough Street. He later resided there, following the death of his father in 1748 and before his move to Ipswich.

The art historian Michael Rosenthal described Gainsborough as “one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time”. He was noted for the speed with which he applied paint, and he worked more from observations of nature (and of human nature) than from application of formal academic rules.

Gainsborough’s enthusiasm for landscapes is shown in the way he merged figures of the portraits with the scenes behind them. He said, “I’m sick of portraits, and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.” His landscapes were often painted at night by candlelight, using a table top arrangement of stones, pieces of mirrors, broccoli, and the like as a model.

His most famous works, Portrait of Mrs. Graham; Mary and Margaret: The Painter’s Daughters; William Hallett and His Wife Elizabeth, nee Stephen, known as The Morning Walk; and Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher, display the unique individuality of his subjects. Joshua Reynolds considered Girl with Pigs “the best picture he (Gainsborough) ever painted or perhaps ever will”.

In the 1780s, Gainsborough used a device he called a “Show box” to compose landscapes and display them backlit on glass. The original box is on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum with a reproduction transparency.

He died of cancer on 2 August 1788 at the age of 61. He is interred in the churchyard St. Anne’s Church, Kew, Surrey (located on Kew Green). He is buried next to Francis Bauer, the famous botanical illustrator.

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