Sir Thomas Gainsborough was born nearly 50 years before John Constable and died when Constable was in his twenties. He is regarded as a pre-Romantic, because in many aspects of his work he elevates feeling above that of the intellect rather than follow academic rules.
Born in Sudbury (Suffolk) in 1727, Thomas Gainsborough was the youngest of nine children. His father, John Gainsborough, worked in the wool trade and also ran a public house,The Black Horse on Market Hill.
As a child, Thomas Gainsborough:
- attended his uncle’s grammar school in Sudbury
- studied art in London from the age of 13
- was apprenticed to an engraver in London.
In 1846 he married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort and fathered two daughters. The duke gave the couple an annuity of £200 a year. During their marriage, the couple moved several times:
- 1748 – from London back to Sudbury
- 1752 – from London to Ipswich
- 1759 – from Ipswich to Bath, where Gainsborough became well known
- 1714 – from Bath back to London“’Tis a most delightful country for a landscape painter. I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree.” (extract from a letter dated 1799 written by John Constable to JT Smith, engraver and artist)“On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.” (extract from a lecture given by John Constable to the Royal Institution in 1836)
Many of Gainsborough’s early works are set in the Suffolk countryside, depicting the flatness, open fields, wooded copses and rutted roads with which he was familiar. This same Suffolk landscape became the inspiration for John Constable half a century later.
“’Tis a most delightful country for a landscape painter. I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree.” (extract from a letter dated 1799 written by John Constable to JT Smith, engraver and artist)
And on contemplating Gainsborough’s pictures, Constable said:
“On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.” (extract from a lecture given by John Constable to the Royal Institution in 1836)
English painters in Gainsborough’s time were largely confined to portraiture as landscape painting was not regarded as a fit subject for respectable art. However, Gainsborough was a rule-bender. He used the English countryside as a background for many of his portraits, merging his elegantly dressed subjects into idyllic, English, country scenes, for example:
- Lady Briscoe (1776) English Heritage Kenwood
- Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (c. 1750) The National Gallery, London
He also painted landscapes depicting ordinary country people and animals going about their daily life. Take a look at images three, four and five above to see how he painted country and sea scenes and you will see why Gainsborough’s work is regarded as a forerunner to that of John Constable. Hollywells Park (sixth image above) is an extra-ordinary picture and not at all typical of Gainsborough’s time – showing, as it does, the artificial ponds built by local brewer, Thomas Cobbold to ensure a pure supply of water for his brewery!
Gainsborough moved in fashionable circles, becoming a friend of the actor David Garrick. In 1781, he received his first royal portrait commission, he exhibited in London regularly and was invited to become a foundation member of the Royal Academy in London.
Thomas Gainsborough was living in London when he died from cancer on 2 August 1778, at the age of 61.