However, Gainsborough soon quarreled with the authorities of the Royal Academy and sent no pictures to the exhibitions until 1777.
Before he left Bath, Gainsborough had explored that exquisitely subtle range of tones which he was to develop so effectively in the symphonies of pearly colour which distinguish the best of his later portraits. He had also evolved his beautiful brushwork, which makes even his duller portraits a delight to painters studying the mysteries of their craft; his power of invention may have weakened when he became a fashionable portrait painter, but is power of expressive handling increased throughout his life.
Gainsborough who was ambitious, was naturally anxious to go to London and put his work to the test of competition with Sir Joshua Reynolds on his own ground.
Gainsborough arrived in London in the early summer of 1774. The family moved into the western wing at Schomberg House in Pall Mall. The house, which was formerly the property of the Dukes of Schomberg, was then owned by the painter, Astley. He lived in the central portion and let the eastern part to a notorious charlatan, Dr Graham, who established there his Temple of Health. With his acute sense of humour, Gainsborough must have had considerable amusement from the throngs of visitors attending the lectures next door.
His many friends in the musical and theatrical world welcomed Gainsborough with open arms, and one of his first activities in London was to assist in the decoration of the new music room.
Gainsborough achieved sufficient fame at Bath to be elected to the Council of the Royal Academy almost immediately he arrived in London, although he characteristically refused to take any part in the proceedings of that august body. In spite of his neglect of the Royal Academy, Gainsborough evidently acquired considerable business within a short time of his arrival in London.
It was in 1775 that Gainsborough first met the Reverend Henry Bate, afterwards Sir Henry Bate Dudley, who later became his constant friend and companion. Bate, the son of the country clergyman, himself took orders before embarking on his career as a newspaper magnate. He helped to found the "Morning Post", of which paper he was editor until he left it in order to establish the "Morning Herald". Bate was a passionate admirer of Gainsborough's painting and he lost no opportunity of bringing it to the notice of the public.
In 1777 Gainsborough again exhibited at the Academy. When the exhibition opened two of Gainsborough's most distinguished pictures were on view, the portrait of Mrs Graham and the fine landscape, "The Watering Place".
Lady Graham seems to have been something of a paragon, since she was not only elegant and accomplished but a more than an ordinarily competent housewife. Her husband adored her, and when she died young, in the south of France, went off to seek his fortune in the wars, and could never bear to look at the portrait, which he sent to the warehouse in Scotland, where it remained until 1859, when it was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Scotland. Gainsborough was evidently anxious to make a success of portrait, and took a considerable time in working out his idea.
A good likeness of Mr Christie, the auctioneer, who was an intimate friend of the painter, was also exhibited this year. His rooms were close to Gainsborough's house, and Gainsborough often dropped in with Garrick in order to examine the pictures on view for sale. Gainsborough was much interested in the works of the old masters and bought a number of pictures. An interesting sidelight on Gainsborough's judgement of pictures was shown when in 1787, he was called upon to give evidence in the case of selling a false Poussin. Gainsborough said that although he was usually charmed with Poussin's work, the picture in question was in his view deficient in harmony, taste, ease and elegance, and that it produced him no emotion. When he was asked whether something more than a bare inspection by the eye was necessary for a judge of pictures, Gainsborough said he conceived "the eye of a painter to be equal to the tongue of the lawyer".
One of Gainsborough's best-known portraits was that of Mrs Robinson, known as "Perdita", because it was when playing that character in "A Winter's Tale" that she first attracted the notice of the Prince of Wales. The beautiful young actress was a fitting subject for Gainsborough' brush and shows him in his most poetic vein. She is sitting on a bank dressed in a white muslin frock with a little white dog by her side and holds in her hand a miniature of the Prince of Wales. The symphony of white and grey-green is only relieved by the blue sash and the highly coloured complexion of the actress.
In 1785 Mrs Siddons, an actress, sat to Gainsborough for the well-known portrait in the National Gallery. Though the painter lavished his painterly skill on the silks and satins and furs of Mrs Siddons's dress, attention is firmly concentrated on the beautiful and delicately modelled head, which is the principal light in the picture and stands out against the broad red curtain that closes the background.
Another distinguished portrait of the same year is that of Mrs Sheridan, where the flimsy draperies seem to be as much alive with movement as the landscape background is tenderly felt. Gainsborough had such a grasp of form and rhythm that he did not have to rely on vivid colour contrasts in order to emphasize the shapes and hold his composition together, but insisted, rather, on the general atmospheric effect, which is conveyed by the subtle and sensitive brushwork.
The Morning Walk, a portrait of Squire Hallet and his wife, was painted in 1786, and gave Gainsborough's talents full scope. In the design he combined dignity with informality in a characteristically English way; the brushwork gives the illusion of soft breezes blowing through the trees, and the linear rhythms and colour harmonies are blended in a perfect symphony. Gainsborough summed up with extraordinary brilliance and sympathy the aristocratic life of the XVIII century, its elegance, refinement and confidence; and although it is a picture of a particular age it has the enduring qualities of all great art.
The later landscapes
Gainsborough's first love was for landscape, but he always considered his chief business to be in the "face way", and he did not allow his fancy to interfere unduly with his trade in portraiture, which increased so rapidly after his move to Bath. However, Gainsborough evidently spent a good deal of time in painting landscapes. The most famous of his landscapes painted before he moved to London are "The Grand Landscape", "Harvest Wagon", "Landscape with cattle" etc.
The "Harvest Wagon" was exhibited at the Royal academy in 1771. The picture has warm colouring with subtle combination of autumn tints and delicate pastel shades, and peasants seem active, lively people. The picture is painted very thinly, and the lovely figure of the boy leading the horses is hardly more than outlined with the brush with all the vigour of a pen and ink sketch. In the same way the form and movement of the horses is conveyed with a few infinitely telling lines. Gainsborough has immortalized the simple scene conveying its essential dignity.
After Gainsborough moved to London he still found time for landscapes. "Watering Place", "Mountain Landscape" were painted at the time.
Gainsborough used some of his sketches of mountain scenery for the little show box which he made in order to show transparencies — pictures painted on glass and lighted from behind with candles in order to give moonlight effect. A contemporary remarked that Gainsborough's transparencies of land and sea were so natural that one stepped back for fear of being splashed.
In the spring of 1788 Gainsborough went to Westminster Hall to hear our speeches of his friends Sheridan and Burke and sitting with his back to the window caught a severe chill. A few weeks later, the swelling in his neck increased and he died on August 2, 1788.
Gainsborough, like Constable, felt deeply the romance of the ordinary happenings of the countryside, but he was born in the age of Reason, when balanced composition and style counted for more than atmospheric effects. He was always torn between his natural desire to please and his instinct as an artist. He loved England and English country as few have done before or since, and, at a time when England had hardly been discovered as a field for landscape painters, Gainsborough was painting the fields and lanes of Suffolk, investing these simple scenes with poetry and romance. At his death, this modest and lovable man was the subject of one of the most thoughtful and beautifully written obituaries accorded to an English painter. Such was the generous tribute of his great rival as a portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds. "If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honourable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of the Art among the very first of that rising name."
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