Gallery: Have you seen Gainsborough’s bladders? Artist’s painting tools rediscovered after centuries in attic

The discovery of several paint bladders at Gainsborough House in Sudbury. The discovery of several paint bladders at Gainsborough House in Sudbury.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014
3:26 PM

They spent hundreds of years lost in the attic; unnoticed, unloved and unused.

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And despite being rediscovered in the 1960s very little is known about them – you might not know what they are at all.

These unassuming pouches go by the name of paint bladders and might well have belonged to Sudbury-born artist Thomas Gainsborough.

They were found undisturbed at his former house in Sudbury in the mid-1960s during a clear-out, not long after the house was opened to the public as a museum.

But at the time nothing was done with them and it is only now staff at Gainsborough’s House can investigate them further.

Executive director Mark Bills is planning to feature the paint bladders in an exhibition, but only after they have been examined by specialists.

“We’ve commissioned the Hamilton Kerr Institute at Cambridge University,” said Mr Bills. “They have lots of experience in this area.

“The paints will undergo a scientific test to date them and to see if it’s plausible that they’re Gainsborough’s.

“They have been in the house and now we’ve got some funding to actually do some research into them and see if they belong to Gainsborough.

“We do know they’re mid-18th Century and French.”

Nineteen pouches were found in the attic and Mr Bills said it is quite rare to find so many together.

And while being discovered at Gainsborough’s home gives a good clue to their ownership more research is need to see if it is plausible that they are his.

“It is possible they were a present to someone in the family but to buy paints at that time wasn’t cheap, they would have been a good present,” Mr Bills added.

“There are secrets yet to be revealed.”

Once the tests have been completed and the paints returned to Sudbury they will become part of an exhibition next year.

There will also be a conference about the practices of Gainsborough and other artists in the 18th Century.

And even if it turns out the paint bladders did not belong to Gainsborough they will still be a valued addition to the museum’s collection.

“To have 19 surviving is a very rare thing,” Mr Bills said. “They are really important.”

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