Search the Collections

Thomas Gainsborough
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Sudbury, Suffolk, England
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
One of the greatest English artists of the 18th century, painter, draftsman and printmaker Thomas Gainsborough is famous for his portraits, landscapes and “fancy paintings” depicting England’s rural poor. Born in Sudbury, Suffolk, the ninth child and fifth son of a clothier, Gainsborough was baptized on May 14, 1727. He attended the Sudbury Grammar School, run by his uncle. His father faced economic difficulties and went bankrupt in 1733. Around 1740 Gainsborough received a bequest of £30 from his father’s brother and with his father’s encouragement moved to London, where he studied under the French painter and printmaker Hubert François Gravelot (1699-1773) at William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) St. Martin’s Lane Academy. He also worked under Francis Hayman (ca. 1708-1776). Gainsborough may have assisted Hayman in decorating boxes in Vauxhall Gardens and Gravelot in decorating the Court Room at the Foundling Hospital. Gravelot returned to Paris in the fall of 1745; Gainsborough set up an independent practice around this time. To support himself, Gainsborough copied and repaired seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, notably those of Jan Wynants (1630/1635-1684) and Jacob van Ruisdael (1628 or 1629-1682), which were popular with English collectors. He was an acknowledged landscape painter by 1748 when he was selected as one of the young artists to paint depictions of London hospitals; his depiction of the Charterhouse Hospital remains on view at London’s Foundling Hospital. In 1746 he married the illegitimate daughter of Henry Scudarmore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort (1707-1745), Margaret Burr (ca. 1728-1798), who received an annual income of £200. Finding difficulty in selling his landscape paintings, Gainsborough moved back to Sudbury in early 1749. He expanded his repertoire to portraiture, which he found more lucrative. Gainsborough moved to Ipswich in 1752, a larger town in Suffolk, and focused on portraits. His created his first experimental etchings around 1753-4. His reputation as a landscape painter continued and in 1755 he received a commission from John Russell, the 4th Duke of Bedford (1710-1771), for two landscapes for the redecoration of Woburn Abbey. Gainsborough spent several months in Bath, from October 1758 to the spring of 1759, testing the market for portrait commissions, and found he could charge higher prices than he had been receiving in Ipswich. In a public sale in October 1759 Gainsborough sold the paintings and drawings in his Ipswich studio and his household goods and moved his family to Bath, perhaps in late 1759; he signed a lease in June 1760 for a large house in Bath. In 1760 Gainsborough created a masterful full-length portrait of the amateur musician Ann Ford (1737-1824, later the wife of Gainsborough’s biographer Philip Thicknesse [1719-1792]; Cincinnati Art Mus.). He first exhibited at the Society of Artists in London in April 1761, showing his portrait of Robert Craggs (ca. 1702-1788, later the 1st Earl Nugent; pvt. coll., on loan to Holburne Mus., Bath). Gainsborough exhibited at the spring exhibitions of the Society every year through 1768 and was admitted as a Fellow of the Society of Artists in 1765. In 1868 Gainsborough became a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts and exhibited two portraits at the Academy’s inaugural exhibition in May 1869. The following year he showed his portrait known as “Blue Boy,” possibly the portrait of Jonathan Buttall (1752-1805; Huntington Library, San Merino, Calif.) at the Academy’s spring exhibition; it shows Gainsborough’s admiration for Anthony Van Dyck’s (1599-1641) portraits. His nephew Gainsborough Dupont (1754-1797) became his apprentice (and later his assistant) in 1772. Unhappy with the proposed placement of his paintings at the Academy’s 1773 exhibition, Gainsborough withdrew his works and did not exhibit at its shows until 1777. He moved from Bath to London in 1774, renting a portion of Schomberg House on Pall Mall. He returned to the Royal Academy’s exhibitions in 1777, exhibiting portraits and the landscape “The Watering Place” (before 1777, Nat. Gallery, London). Gainsborough’s full- portraits of King George III (1738-1820) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818; both Royal Collection), shown at the 1781 exhibition, led to subsequent royal commissions. He continued to exhibit at the Academy’s exhibitions until 1874. Sometime during the early 1770s, he created his first aquatint. From the mid-1770s until 1780, he created several soft-ground etchings. In the mid-1780s, he created prints combining soft-ground etching, aquatint and mezzotint. These were reproductive prints after his drawings, apparently intended for publication. After several additional disagreements with the Academy over the hanging of his pictures, Gainsborough withdrew from its exhibitions in 1784 and exhibited his work annually at his Schomberg House residence. Gainsborough died of cancer at his home in London in 1788. Later that year his great rival Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) paid special tribute to Gainsborough in his fourteenth discourse to the Royal Academy. (Rev. TNB 7/2019) Selected bibliography: Hamilton, James. Thomas Gainsborough: A Portrait. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2017. Rosenthal, Michael. The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: “A Little Business for the Eye.” New Haven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 1999.