Celebrating the birth of Suffolk’s artistic tradition

Thomas Gainsborough is rightly regarded as one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced. His highly-prized portraits of the great and the good of Regency England remain important parts of our cultural heritage – as do his watercolour landscapes of the Suffolk countryside, where he was born and brought up.

But, as a new exhibition at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury demonstrates, he wasn’t working in a vacuum.

Museum curator Sophie Woods has co-ordinated a wide-ranging exhibition called Home and Abroad, which puts Gainsborough’s works in context with what was happening in the art world across Europe and the rest of Britain at the time.

The exhibition has been curated by watercolour expert Huon Mallalieu, who was able to gain access to works in a private collection, and much of this exhibition has not been on public display before.

The resulting exhibition consists of 70 works from Gainsborough’s contemporaries and spans the length of the Suffolk artist’s career.

The exhibition features work from a stellar collection of 18th century artists including such dazzling names as JMW Turner, JR Cozens, Thomas Rowlandson, Paul Sandby and Francis Towne.

The collection, one of the last in private hands and one of the largest, was assembled during the 1950s and ’60s – although the collector did not want his or her identity to be revealed.

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Sally said they were thrilled that the watercolours and the pencil drawings could be hung throughout the house, rather than just in the gallery space. This allowed visitors to compare and contrast Gainsborough’s work, displayed as part of their permanent exhibition, with his contemporaries.

The selection of the work was thematic and they chose the works in order to take the visitor on a journey both in terms of geography and time.

“We wanted to start the exhibition with East Anglian landscapes, move towards London, then cross the English Channel into mainland Europe.

“Having covered Europe the collection then extends over the oceans to America, India and China.”

One of the highlights of the exhibition is William Alexander’s 1792 illustration of a Chinese Mandarin. Alexander was later made chief curator of drawings at the British Museum.

Sophie Woods said that watercolour painting and excellent draughtsmanship was one of the cornerstones of British art – particularly during this period.

“Watercolours have long been one of the chief glories of British art and the connoisseurship of them marks one of the highpoints in British taste.

“The skill of the artists and the range of subject matter on display in this exhibition will not only give considerable visual pleasure, it will also provide a fascinating insight into the nature of British society in the 18th century.”

In his introduction to the exhibition Huon Mallalieu sets the scene for British art of the period and how Gainsborough and his contemporaries reflected what was going on in British society.

Gainsborough got his start as a portrait painter because of the rise of the wealthy merchants and the development of the middle-classes, while satirists like Thomas Rowlandson were able to harness art to make social comment.

Huon wrote: “In the 18th century Britain, England in particular, saw the coming together of a number of developments which gave birth to a new way of recording and observing the world.

“From the mid-18th century, there was the realisation that drawing skills were important to naval and military officers. Drawing was now regarded as a suitable activity for gentlemen and a taste for it spread through educated society.

“The grandest Grand Tourists even took artists with them to record the sights. With the end of the Napoleonic wars the world had changed. There was intellectual curiosity as people looked to understand the world through scientific inquiry.

“The British Empire was also coming into being at this time and wars were being fought with a new professionalism.” He said that watercolours and drawing, two of the arts at which the English excelled, were swiftly harnessed for war. Both were excellent for recording not only the layout of the landscape but also for recording the fine detail of people, places, plants and animals.

Sophie Woods explained that this was the background against which Gainsborough’s art was being produced.

She said the exhibition has been several years in the planning but it has taken the last year to select and prepare the right pictures for public display.

“We were quite spoiled for choice and the fact that these works are rarely seen by the public makes the show all the more special.”

She added that the exhibition was laid out in thematic sections rather than by artist. This allowed the show to explore the pre-occupations of the age and investigate how the people of the late 18th century saw the world.

The show starts with works from the late 17th century from artists who inspired Gainsborough and his colleagues – people like Wenceslaus Hollar and Francis Place – and ends with Turner in the early 19th century, heading towards Impressionism.

There is a hustle and bustle about the exhibition which reflects the busy-ness of British society at the time. It’s not just romantic, rural idylls – warm summer days caught forever by an artist’s skill with a paintbrush.

There are portraits, sketches, engravings – people are caught travelling, dancing, going about their business. You get a glimpse of a world in action – of lives being lived.

Thomas Rowlandson created an ink and watercolour sketch of a duel being fought on Highgate Hill in London. During the reign of King George III there were 170 duels recorded, resulting in 69 deaths and 96 serious wounds.

Elsewhere, James Miller captures the bustle of life in the capital in his detailed watercolour City From Southwark, George Keat chronicles the boom in coastal retreats in his bustling The Promenade At Margate, while John Augustus Atkinson echoes a little of Suffolk’s own Margaret Catchpole story in his ink and watercolour Smugglers Attacked By Excisemen.

Also, interestingly, in terms of social history the Rev Cooper Willyams’ A Dance on HMS Orion proves there was more to naval life than hoisting sails and swabbing decks. In fact, because the picture was painted on the eve of The Battle of Nile, there is speculation as to whether the two officers standing, watching the festivities, are not Nelson and his second-in-command, Saumarez.

Although the portraits of local worthies are preserved for posterity – Sarah Macklarinan Singleton’s chalk drawing of Robert Sparrow of Worlingham Hall in Suffolk is a particularly fine example – it is the drawings and caricatures of local eccentrics such as Sir Robert Russell Frankland’s Martha Gunn that really makes the era come alive.

Gainsborough is represented, in addition to the pictures in the permanent exhibition, by a sublime chalk drawing, Wooded Landscape, which demonstrates his ability to recreate the atmosphere of a location rather than just the placement of the trees, shrubs and other topographical features.

She said that context was always important when looking at the career of an artist, and this exhibition not only takes stock of what the English art scene at the time was like but allows the visitor to appreciate Gainsborough’s role within that cultural landscape.

“All our exhibitions have some link with Gainsborough, our own collections and with the area.

“The exhibition starts off in Suffolk and looks at how watercolour is used round here at the time and then heads off across the country and around the world.

“It is interesting to see very famous watercolour artists being displayed alongside virtual unknowns and comparing the work and the choice of subjects.

“I think people will be surprised to see how different artists are using watercolours in radically different ways and having the opportunity to see how the medium developed.

“It is also interesting to see the relationships between artists. To see who was influencing who – who was friends with who and how the amateur artists were also very much involved in the growth of art at the time.”

n Home and Abroad: Drawings and Watercolours From A Private Collection runs until September 29 at Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury.

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