Gainsborough attracted Thicknesse by the originality of his works. His originality lay in the fact that he unconsciously flouted the fashions of the day and found his inspiration in the work of the Dutch realistic painters. In the XVIII century realistic landscapes were called "those drudging mimics of nature's most uncomely coarseness". The 1st landscapes were the "View of the Charterhouse", the "Cornard Wood", "Landguard Fort" etc.
Gainsborough achieved his 1st professional success as a landscape painter, but this line of business was not profitable at the time, and he had to paint portraits to make a living. Some of the most interesting of the Suffolk pictures are the small portraits in landscape settings, in which he could combine his gifts in both branches of his art. These portraits are in a sense "conversation pieces", which were then so popular in England, but Gainsborough succeeded in giving a special character to that convention. His portraits, although sometimes rather stiff, show a keen understanding of human nature as well as of wild nature, linked with a rare appreciation of the true relation of the one to the other. He did not use landscape as a background to set off the figures, but as an integral part of the theme.
The most successful of these pictures is undoubtedly the portrait of "Mr and Mrs Andrews" which is still in the possession of the Andrews family. They are not sitting on an elegant terrace, in a well-groomed landscape, but on an ordinary garden seat looking at their crops, as if Gainsborough caught them unaware of his presence when they were resting during a stroll round their property. Mr Andrews has just shot a bird which Mrs Andrews is carrying with no town-bred qualms although she is charmingly dressed in her best frock for the painting. The figures are so naturally posed that they seem part of the landscape, which is painted with a degree of realism unprecedented at the time. It is much more brilliant in colour than any other of the Suffolk portraits and the trees and fields are attuned to the gay blue gown Mrs Andrews is wearing. The whole conception in its simplicity and realism is more nearly related to the plein air painting of the XIX century than to the mannered conversation piece.
In most of the other early portrait groups, the landscape gives pride of place to the figures, but is always a fitting and thoughtful accompaniment to them. The delightful portrait of "The artist, his wife and child" was probably painted about 1751. The landscape in this picture is less clearly defined than in the Andrews, but the rather ethereal blue-green trees fit the mood of the picture and accord with the dreamy expression on the painter's face.
Among other early portraits are that of the painter's brother "Scheming Jack,"MrKirby", "Mrs Kirby", "Samuel Kilderbee".
One of the loveliest of the later Suffolk portraits is "The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly", surely one of the most beautiful of all pictures of children, so tender in its feeling for the delicate forms and yet so solidly conceived as a pictorial design.
Gainsborough's letters to his friends throw some light on his attitude to his craft. In later life Gainsborough was much concerned about the hanging of his pictures. It was particularly important to Gainsborough that his pictures should be hung in a proper light since he relied for his effects for delicate drawing and lively handling of the paint rather than on striking effects of colour or emphatic chiaroscuro.
In the Suffolk pictures Gainsborough had not yet fully enough developed his manner, but "the odd scratches and marks" were beginning to make their appearance. They are evident in the treatment of the drapery, the painting of the hair and in other details. For the most part Gainsborough's sitters seem to have been also his friends. No doubt Gainsborough's early study of landscape influenced his vision as a portrait painter, he saw a head, as he saw a tree, enveloped in light, and he was profoundly interested in the delicate gradations of tones.
Bath and fashion
Although Gainsborough evidently had quite a flourishing trade in Suffolk, he admitted that he was afraid to put people off when they were in a mood to sit, and the potential local clientele must have been limited. Philip Thicknesse, who was accustomed to winter in Bath, pressed Gainsborough to abandon the quiet Suffolk town and to try his fortune in the West country. Naturally, London was the centre of the art world, but there was in England no town than Bath which provided such opportunities for the portrait painter. The city was a favourite resort of pleasure seekers from all parts of England and of all ranks of society.
On his arrival at Bath, Gainsborough took a house about of a mile in the Lansdowne Road. Lansdowne Road leads up a hill to the open country and would naturally have attracted Gainsborough the landscape painter, who although he could never persuade himself to renounce the pleasures of town, always sighed for the country. What did he look like physically? Portraits leave a clear impression of his personality; the sharp turn of the head, the quivering nostrils, the half-parted lips, the searching eyes, all these add up to an image of somebody vibrantly alive — alert, observant, excitable, highly strung. He was inconsistent, impulsive, and, of course, easily touched. However, his constitution and nervous system were by no means robust. He thought and acted like a gentleman and was not irreligious, although there was a combination of excitability and bohemianism on the one hand and practical good sense on the other hand in him.
Gainsborough was impatient and found it hard to contain himself when he was in pursuit of some new material or pigment he had found effective. Gainsborough cared passionately for the quality of his materials, and for the excellence of technique.
A visit to Gainsborough's studio soon became the mode. It was the custom in Bath to allow visiting painters to place specimens of their work in the Rump Room with their scale of charges. Gainsborough on his arrival followed the usual practice and his studio quickly attracted great interest. He became so popular that a contemporary wit said, "Fortune seemed to take up her abode with him; her house became Gainsborough".
The painter must have known most of the distinguished and elegant folk who visited Bath, but he never enjoyed polite society and infinitely preferred the companionship of fellow artists, musicians and actors. He was not only "passionately fond of music", but himself performed on several instruments — his friends said he "was too conspicuous to study music scientifically, but his ear was good and his natural taste was refined... he always played to his feelings".
The stage had an irresistible appeal for Gainsborough who was on excellent terms with the manager of the Bath Theatre and had access to a box on all occasions. He met many of the actors who visited Bath, including the great Garrick, of whose character and ability he had the very highest opinion. The artists became lifelong friends; both had a very nice sense of humour, and it is amusing to read of them visiting Mr Christie's rooms in London, when the auctioneer is said to have remarked that the presence of those two with their lovely banter greatly added to the interests in his sales.
It was in Bath that Gainsborough painted the best known of his portraits, the famous "The Blue Boy" (1770). It seems that the model was Jonathan Buttall. The boy's father, an ironmonger in the Greek Street, was an intimate friend of Gainsborough and one of the few people invited to be present at his burial.Mr Buttall was a man of means and taste, and frequently entertained artists and musicians at his home. It was not a commissioned work at all: X-rays have revealed the beginnings of the portrait of an older man under the paint surface, and, thus the fact that the "The Blue Boy" was painted on a discarded canvas. The picture was clearly done for Gainsborough's own pleasure.
The painting of the blue suit is superb and surely justifies Thicknesse's contention that "Mr Gainsborough not only paints the face, but finishes with his own hands every part of the drapery; this, however trifling a matter it may appear to some, is of great importance to the picture as it is fatigue and labour to the artist."
Some very fine portraits of men were painted by Gainsborough in the late 60's. That of "Viscount Kilmorey" is now in the National Gallery. Gainsborough has seized upon an easy slouching attitude which one feels the sitter would naturally have adopted. The paint is applied in those broken direct touches so characteristic of the later work and is more akin to the workmanship of Manet or Goya than to any contemporary XVIII century painter. The subtle play of movement around the mouth is particularly characteristic, whilst the vigorous treatment of the tree trunk is an admirable foil to the delicate modelling of the head.
An event of the first importance to the artistic world occurred in 1768 in the foundation of the Royal Academy. Gainsborough sent to the first exhibition a portrait of Lady Molyneux, which was one of Gainsborough's most successful works of the period. The black lace scarf gracefully draped over her shoulders, shows off the beautiful hands of great advantage and emphasizes the delicacy of the tones of the cream-coloured satin. The simple compact design and the sureness of the drawing give the picture a strength and depth which are enhanced by the very delicacy of treatment.