Thomas Gainsborough
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Thomas Gainsborough (bef. 1727 - 1788)

Thomas Gainsborough
Born before in Sudbury, Suffolk, Englandmap
Husband of — married 15 Jul 1746 in St. George's Church, Mayfair, Westminster, London, Englandmap
Died after age 61 in Schomberg House, Pall Mall, London, Englandmap
Profile last modified | Created 8 Jan 2010
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Biography

Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, England, and was destined to become one of the most famous English 18th century landscape and portrait painters.

Records indicate that Thomas was most likely born within the first few months of 1727. Although the exact day and month of his birth are not recorded, there is evidence of his baptism taking place in The Independent Meeting House, in Friars Street, Sudbury, Suffolk, England, on 14th May, 1727.[1]

Thomas was the fifth son and ninth child born to John Gainsborough, a publican, clothier, and postmaster of Sudbury, Suffolk, and his wife, Mary Burrough, a flower painter, daughter of the Rev. Henry Burrough and sister of Humphrey Burrough, the Headmaster of Thomas's future grammar school. His siblings were four brothers: John, Humphrey, Matthias and Robert, and four sisters, Mary, Susannah, Sarah and Elizabeth. The house where Thomas was born, now 46 Gainsborough Street in Sudbury, Suffolk, dates back to around 1520. It was once an Inn and carried the name of The Black Horse. The property was purchased in 1722 by John and Mary Gainsborough for the princely sum of £230. [2]

From a very early age, Thomas's artistic talent became very apparent. Almost from the time he had mastered the use of a pencil, he would sketch the trees in the orchard outside the kitchen window, his favourite tree being a pear, which was later to become the beginning of his portrait painting, through a very bizarre incident.

His mother, an accomplished painter of flowers, nurtured her small son in his efforts, and encouraged his obvious talent. His Father, was at that time, travelling frequently to the continent, to take orders for his weaving and clothier business, and was unaware of his young son's talent. As Thomas grew, so did his passion and talent, and he would venture further out into the countryside. Nature became his classroom, the trees and buildings his subjects. Soon his canvas would be filled with the whole landscape, far and near. He saw his corner of the world not only through the eyes of a child, but with the heart of an artist. Not far from the orchard and indeed the flower garden of which no doubt his mother had painted every flower, stood the ruins of the Palace of Simon Sudbury. Simon Sudbury had been the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1375, and was subsequently beheaded by those involved in Watt Tyler's rebellion. During Thomas's childhood, the ruins were being used as a poorhouse. He was said to have sketched the Gothic features, and would have certainly come across the grotesque head of Simon Sudbury, which had been encased in the wall of the adjacent church of St. Gregory.

His love, however, was still sketching the orchard, and it was on one of these occasions that Thomas suddenly spotted the face of a local man peering over the fence in a very suspicious manner. Thomas, who at this time was hidden from sight, sketched the man's likeness onto his canvas. As he watched, the man climbed over the fence and headed to the pear tree. As he began to pluck pears from the tree, Thomas jumped out from his hiding place and startled the man, who ran off back the way he had came. Thomas went inside and reported this incident to his parents, who promptly alerted the police. The man was apparently already known to the police, and was soon apprehended. He did, of course, deny any wrongdoing, but being shown Thomas's sketch, was forced to admit he had been caught red-handed.

Before Thomas had reached ten years of age, he was placed in Sudbury Grammar School, where the Headmaster was his uncle, Humphrey Burrough. It was during this time that Thomas would play truant from school, and wander off into the countryside where his heart was. On one such occasion, Thomas wrote a note on a strip of paper, "Give Tom a holiday" and signed it in his father's handwriting. It was such a remarkable forgery, that Thomas was duly given the holiday, and he set off on a "rustic adventure". Unfortunately for Thomas, something happened in his absence, and his excursion was duly found out. He was promptly returned home to face his father's wrath. His father, being so busy away from the family home, was, until now, totally unaware of his youngest son's talent, but being presented with evidence of Thomas's escapade, realised his son was indeed an artist.

During 1739, at the age of 12, Thomas received the sum of £30 which had been bequeathed to him by his paternal Uncle Thomas. This event was to be the beginning of Thomas's desire to travel to London. He progressed well in his studies and by the time he was about 15, he realised his desire and traveled to London.

Thomas found lodgings with a silversmith, who tried hard to teach Thomas his trade. However, although Thomas tried to master the art, he did not enjoy it and only dabbled in it in later years. He was then introduced to Hubert Gravelot, an engraver by trade. He studied under this master, who got him an admission to the Academy in St. Martin's Lane. He left Gravelot's studio for Hayman's who, at that time, was renowned as a great historical artist, but also for his love of liquor. Thomas then became associated with William Hogarth and his school.

Thomas soon decided he should have his own studio, so he rented a property in Hatton Gardens, where he painted landscapes, which he sold to dealers, and portraits, for which he charged from two to five guineas. His paintings were not selling as he had hoped, so he decided to split his time and traveled between London and Sudbury on a regular basis. It was on one such trip, that, as he was painting a landscape, a beautiful woman strolled into his view. At that moment he fell in love.

A Landscape in Suffolk

Margaret Burr (1728-1798) was the woman who had captured Thomas's heart. Margaret was the illegitimate daughter of Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort, who, upon their marriage, settled a £200 annuity on them. On 15th July, 1746, Thomas married a now pregnant Margaret in Saint George's Church, Mayfair, Westminster, London, England. [3] The couple began their married life in a house in Little Kirby Street, London, which is most likely where their first daughter Mary was born. Sadly little Mary's life was destined to be a very short one, but Thomas managed to complete a family portrait before she died. The portrait is hanging in the national Gallery in London. [4] Little Mary was buried in St. Andrew's, Holborn, London, on 1st March, 1748.

Thomas , Margaret and daughter Mary

On 29th October, 1748, Thomas's father John passed away in Sudbury, and was buried in St. George's Churchyard, Sudbury. Shortly after this event, Thomas decided to move back to Sudbury, and in the following spring, Thomas and Margaret moved into a house in Friars Street, Sudbury. In 1750 Margaret gave birth to another daughter, who they named Mary (1750-1826). This may have been in memory of their first daughter. She was to be followed the following year by a sister who they named Margaret (1751-1820). Thomas, now more relaxed and happy, settled into his passion of painting landscapes. In 1752 he moved his family to Foundation Street in Ipswich, Suffolk. He spent the following years painting landscapes and then commissioned portraits. He found his own style by adding his beloved landscapes as the backgrounds for the portraits. His daughters were also a subject of his painting. He memorialised their childhood days by painting them "chasing butterflies".

Chasing Butterflies

In 1760 Thomas moved his family to Bath, where he felt confident enough in his abilities to attract a more affluent clientele. Thomas had not acquired accommodation prior to uprooting his family, so enlisted the help of an acquaintance to search and duly deposited his family at his acquaintance's house. They found a property to rent at fifty guineas a year, and upon their return, informed Margaret of their find. The poor woman was so taken aback, and thinking it was to come from her annuity, asked her husband why he would wish to be sent to jail. With her unsatisfactory response to their find, they set back out on another search for suitable accommodation. Finally, they found a set of newly built apartments, built in "The Circus". Thomas decided this would be their new home and without further approval from his wife, made the arrangements. The property itself was more expensive than the first, but it had spacious accommodation for his family home, space for his studio that had superb natural light and enough space to rent out to others for whatever purpose. His sister Mary would eventually set up a shop within the property, selling fabric and clothing, which inevitably helped Thomas paint the many fabrics his clientele wore.

There was never a lack of patronage for his portraits, as word spread about his mastery with a brush. Gradually, the prices Thomas charged for his varying sizes of portraits, grew exponentially, as did the queue of people wanting them. Thomas began to feel the pressure of so many people wanting his attention. On one such occasion, a gentleman of some esteem and prestige entered his studio. He may well have been of noble descent, but he would have most likely have jumped the queue. As he sat in front of Thomas, arranging his finery and making sure his well-powdered wig was sitting straight, he detailed Thomas to pay close attention to his dimple. Thomas, being totally exasperated with him, told him he would not pay attention to any part of him, and flatly refused to paint his portrait.

In 1761, Thomas finally managed to exhibit some of his work. He had been asked to contribute some paintings for exhibition the year previous, and had been unable to do so. Now he sent a full length portrait of "Mr Nugent" who became Lord Clare. [5]

In 1762, he exhibited a portrait of "Mr Poyntz of Bath": a gentleman who enjoyed the sporting life and who was duly painted, gun in hand.

His third contribution was of three paintings. The first being a large landscape, and the other two, portraits, one of "Mr Medlicott" and the other of "Quin". Mr Medlicott was apparrantly the "gay and gallant cousin" of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. [6] Quin, however, was an actor, and not an easy sitting by all accounts. It was not until Thomas had said that Quin would be immortalised for ever that he agreed to sit. During the later months of 1763, Thomas fell ill through overwork. It has also been recorded that he suffered a high fever which kept him in his bed for over five weeks, and that this could have been caused by venereal disease, caught during his visits to London. The Bath Journal evidently reported his death on 17th October, 1763, but had to retract after Thomas had obviously made a recovery.

1764 sees Thomas exhibiting a painting of a soldier mounted on a bay horse, the background of which depicted a thick forest of trees, and was almost as prominent as the subject itself.

A very large canvas was his exhibit the following year. It depicted full length portraits of "General Honywood", and "Colonel Nugent". Colonel Nugent was the brave son of Robert, Earl Nugent aka Lord Clare, who had lost his life in the West Indies.

In 1766 a full length portrait David Garrick was one subject of his exhibition contribution. It was said that his likeness was almost impossible to catch, due to his constant change of expression.

David Garrick

In 1767 and 1768, Thomas's exhibits were of nobility, all of which showed how high he was held in esteem within royal circles. As the year rolled on, dissension grew within the society and it was then that the Royal Academy was born.

In 1769, Thomas had to bear the loss of his dear mother. She was buried on 24th May, 1769, in the cemetery of the Independent Meeting House, Sudbury. Thomas was then invited to become a founder member of the Royal Academy. He accepted and soon began to exhibit his paintings there.

In the summer of 1774, with the lease of the Bath property close to expiration, Thomas decided to move once more, and headed back to London. This time, he chose to live in Pall Mall, and took up residence in part of a noble mansion built for the 3rd Duke of Schomberg. [7]

Schomberg House c1850

Soon after Thomas's arrival back into London, King George III summoned him to his palace. King George had become enthralled with Thomas's style and content of his paintings. It soon became apparent that the King and Queen had sat for Thomas, and soon Thomas was inundated with commissions for portraits.

Thomas was a benevolent brother and often helped his brother John "Scheming Jack" with sums of money, as his life had not been kind to him. Humphrey however, was the brother who Thomas had a special fondness for, and they often visited together and took long walks in Henley. Thomas was Humphrey's support when he bore the loss of his wife, and when Humphrey passed away the following year, Thomas settled his estate.

In 1777 and 1778, Thomas contributed again to the exhibitions in the Academy. Many of the portraits he sent were of nobility.

In 1779, Thomas painted, what is quite possibly his most famous painting, "The Blue Boy". [8] The style Thomas was beginning to emulate in his paintings was that of Van Dyck. The subject may well have been Jonathon Buttall, dressed in his 17th century attire, although the colour of which may not have been blue. It was reportedly similar to Van Dyck's portrait of Charles II as a child. The colour however, was thought to have been in response to a statement made by his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds, indicating blue, green and grey should only be used in small areas.

Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough

Two of the pictures Thomas exhibited in 1779, were full length portraits of "Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Gloucester", and "Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cumberland". He also Exhibited a noble picture of "The Duke of Argyll", among others. His contributions to both the Arts Society and The Royal Academy to this point had been well over fifty portraits, unequally balanced by a mere eleven landscapes.

In the 1780 exhibition, Thomas sent 6 landscapes which were hung side by side across the room.

Thomas was taken aback by the suddenness of his daughter Mary's marriage to Johann Christian Fischer in February 1780. In his letter to his sister Mary Gibbon, he stated he had been totally unaware of the romance and could do nothing but give his consent or otherwise be the cause of total unhappiness on both sides. He prayed that they would be happy. It seemed however that Peggy was unhappy about it all and he hoped she would do nothing without first consulting him. It is presumed here that he is referring to his wife Margaret.

Mary's marriage was, it seems, destined to be short in length, as soon after she was to be separated from her husband due to her "aberrations of mind", but it was more likely because the Prince of Wales was desperately in love with her.

Thomas continued to be a favourite of the Royal Family, and painted portraits of them all, with exception of the Duke of York. He painted these portraits within Buckingham Palace, and on once such occasion, whilst at work, one of the small Princes passed away. The King, passing by his workroom, saw him at work and told his page to tell him to stop for awhile. The page, begging his King's pardon, suggested the King may not want this if he was aware of what Thomas was actually painting. The King, realising what the page was trying to delicately say, carried on walking, leaving Thomas to paint. Thomas was indeed capturing the young Prince's likeness.

In 1781 Thomas exhibited full length portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

Thomas continued sending exhibits to the Academy until 1784, when the Academy refused to hang a portrait as Thomas had wished. After much disagreement and dissension, Thomas withdrew all his exhibits and never sent another painting to the Academy. It was then that he decided to exhibit his painting himself in Schomberg House. this proved to not be of such popularity as Thomas had hoped, so he set of to pay a visit to his home town of Sudbury to clear his head of the disagreements and dissension. Many of his future paintings were derived from this and future visits to Sudbury.

In 1787, he painted the famous picture of "The Woodman in the Storm", which earned him especial praise from King George III. Unfortunately this painting was later destroyed by fire.

In February 1788, the trial of Warren Hastings [9] began. Thomas took great interest in this, so much so, that he put down his brush and attended the court. It was there, sitting by the window, he felt a cold breeze on his neck, which continued to grow colder and stiff. On his return home, he told his wife and niece, and when they looked closely they found a area about the size of a shilling (now 5p), which was hard and unyielding. Margaret was alarmed and called in Doctor Heberden and Mr John Hunter. They decided, upon examination, that it was nothing more than a swelling in the glands which should disperse with warmer weather. As the year moved along, and the warmer weather set in, Thomas felt that this swelling was indeed becoming larger and not dispersing at all. He sought aid again from Doctor Heberden and Mr. John Hunter, and it was then found to be a cancer. Despite all valiant efforts from his physicians, Thomas could not be cured of this affliction, so he straightened his affairs and sat back and awaited his fate. Thomas passed away in the early hours of the morning of the 2nd August, 1788. He was buried near his good friend Joshua Kirby, in Kew Cemetery. He was 61 years of age.


Research Notes

Thomas Gainsborough's life has been summarised here with pertinent facts depicting historical events and some of his more famous works. He wrote many letters to his sister Mrs. Mary Gibbons, which may have been mentioned but not included in full. These, and other letters, can be read in full in the Google book "The life of Thomas Gainsborough" which is linked below. Gainsborough had more famous works than what are depicted here. The ones depicted are purely to illustrate events in his life.

Some dates of events in his life and the details thereof are recorded differently in other works about Gainsborough's life. There is also difference of opinion as to the cause of Thomas Gainsborough's death. One being stated as a cancer and another as a *Wen. These works are also listed below and it should be the reader's discretion as to which date and description of event they prefer to believe.

A *Wen is a sebaceous cyst.


Sources

  1. "England and Wales Non-Conformist Record Indexes (RG4-8), 1588-1977," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FQ25-W45 : 11 December 2014), Thomas Gainsborough, 14 May 1727, Baptism; citing p. 14, Sudbury, Suffolk, record group RG4, Public Record Office, London.
  2. Gainsborough's House
  3. "England Marriages, 1538–1973 ," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V52M-C8V : 10 February 2018), Thomas Gainsborough and Margaret Burr, 15 Jul 1746; citing Saint George Mayfair,Westminster,London,England, reference , index based upon data collected by the Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City; FHL microfilm 942 B4HA V. 15.
  4. National Gallery
  5. Lord Clare
  6. Richard Lovell Edgeworth
  7. Schomberg House
  8. The Blue Boy
  9. Warren Hastings
  • see also:

Acknowledgements

This profile was created on 8 Jan 2010.

Adopted and updated by Veronica Williams 13:16, 26 April 2014 (EDT)



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Hi Veronica, the England Project would like to project protect and manage this project. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss. Thank you. Gillian, Leader
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