Gainsborough’s Family Album

Intimate family portraits by a “likeness man” impress John Westbrooke

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Thomas Gainsborough was one of the foremost portrait painters in 18th-century England, though he didn’t really want to be. He preferred landscapes, but they didn’t sell, so his best known works now are mostly depictions of high society figures.

The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition highlights not these, however, but the unusual number of paintings he made of his extended family – himself and his wife Margaret, their children, siblings and niblings, servants and dogs. We watch them grow up, grow rich and grow old over 30 years.

The first one you see is the least typical: a young couple and their little girl, sitting in woodland. It looks like some of his later work, such as “Mr and Mrs Andrews”, similarly a well-to-do couple with gun and dog, outside on their family estate.

But it’s misleading. Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, in 1727 to a clothier who went bust, became a postmaster and received support from a well-off nephew (family was already proving important). He went to London as early as 1740 – with a legacy from an uncle – as apprentice to artists, and had his own studio when he was only 16. He married Margaret Burr, illegitimate daughter of a duke, who settled £200 a year on her. They’re only 20 in the painting; their little girl, Mary, was added later, but died when she was only a year old.

They didn’t have a country estate, either; the painting was done in some green corner of London. But Gainsborough was always keen to demonstrate that he was as upmarket as any of the rich clientele he hoped to attract – and that’s what he became.

He returned for a while to Sudbury, and had two more daughters, Mary and Margaret, then tried his luck in Ipswich, and then in rich and cosmopolitan Bath, where he was very successful indeed.

We don’t really know why he produced 50-odd family portraits over the years, more than any other artist had, but it may have been partly because he realised he’d have to work on more or less life-size faces and needed to practise. There were no more portraits of him and his wife together, but he produced many of his daughters; we watch them growing in the course of the exhibition through paintings that are so immediate and intimate they could be photos.

In 1756, in one of his most charming works, Margaret’s reaching out to a butterfly while Mary more cautiously holds her back, perhaps because it’s about to land on a barely visible thistle, or perhaps because Mary’s just more cautious. In 1760 Mary embraces Margaret, who’s holding a cat (also hard to see) from behind. About the same year, Mary adjusts something in Margaret’s hair, though this double portrait has been cut in two, then reassembled oddly. They were for family consumption, not for sale, so they were mostly unfinished, but the faces are fully worked.

In Bath, they took one of the most expensive houses in town – the rent would have eaten up most of Margaret’s annuity, but they sublet rooms – and used it in part as a showroom; prospective customers would doubtless have seen portraits of the painter and his wife and noted how lifelike they were. Gainsborough had become famous for the accuracy of his portraiture, and signed a letter “your likeness man”. He disdained it, calling it “this curs’d Face Business”, but it was keeping him in style.

He was not a faithful husband. In 1763, having caught some sort of venereal disease on a trip to London and nearly died, he began to worry about what would have happened to his children: suppose they never found husbands? As the writing of Jane Austen a generation later suggested, this was a dire fate.

He’d already sent them to a good school in Chelsea. Now, to make them independent, he taught them to paint, and painted them doing it. By this time he was doing so much work he laid his own paint on rather thinly; as a result, Margaret seems to be looking at a faint reflection of herself – the ghost of a different composition he’d tried and then painted over. Curiously, he taught them landscapes, even though long lines of unsold ones filled his studio. But if either woman actually produced anything, it hasn’t survived.

Gainsborough wrote: “I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to …walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness & ease.” He didn’t mean it, though he did keep on with the landscapes. In 1774 the family made their final move, to London, where his career reached its peak. He had already been a founder member of the Royal Academy. Now he was renting a wing of a grand mansion in Pall Mall, and among his fans were King George III, who had to give posts to his rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, but preferred Gainsborough.

He painted his wife on her 50th birthday, looking older and mildly exasperated: he may have taken as a model depictions of the Roman goddess Juno, who spent a lot of time berating her consort Jupiter for his womanising, in which case it’s a rueful in-joke. He also painted his daughters one more time. No longer carefree kids chasing butterflies, they’re grand young ladies in silks and satins, with dog and trees behind them, looking ready for husbands.

In 1788 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He made up with Reynolds – together, after all, they’d raised the status of painters from hired hands to artists. He fretted some more about his daughters’ future until his prudent wife admitted that, knowing his free-spending ways, she’d squirrelled away a massive £10,000 for them. His last words were about his own favourite portraitist: “Van Dyck was right.”

Things didn’t go well after that. His studio was taken over by his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, who’d been his sole apprentice and assistant, but he died young. Mrs Gainsborough survived another 10 years. Mary, however, married briefly and badly; her mental health declined, and Margaret, who didn’t marry, cared for her until her own death. A sad ending, but it’s the family affection that lights up the exhibition.

Gainsborough’s Family Album is at the National Portrait Gallery until 3 February 2019. Tickets from £12.50.

Also running are Early Gainsborough: From the Obscurity of a Country Town, at Gainsborough House, Sudbury, until 17 February 2019

Gainsborough and the Theatre, at the Holburne Museum, Bath, until 20 January 2019