New exhibition offers Gainsborough the chance to rub shoulders with his artistic peers
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Thomas Gainsborough was a master of English art but he wasn’t the only one. A new exhibition at Gainborough’s House allows him to shine in the company of other English greats
Gainsborough's House in Sudbury is renowned for being home to one of the greatest portrait painters of the great and the good, Thomas Gainsborough. But, now one of Suffolk's grand masters of art has been joined by a throng of giants from the Golden Age of Art as a significant private collection goes public display for the first time.
Important works by Gainsborough will be joined by landmark paintings by Constable, Turner and Lawrence.
Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough's House, said that Thomas Gainsborough, was significant in building the British school of painting and is featured in the new exhibition at his very best in paint and pencil.
He was also grateful that the loan of the exhibition from the anonymous benefactor would aid their on-going project to make Gainsborough's House a National Centre for Thomas Gainsborough.
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"We are enormously grateful to the generosity of these very public spirited collectors of British art. Through their loans and their gifts, they are making one of the most important periods of British art open to so many more people. The exhibition is a rare opportunity for visitors to see a very special collection reflecting a grande passion for painting and displaying one of the great moments in the history of art. As one of our most significant supporters of our multi-million pound development they are doing so much for art, the town and the nation's cultural life."
The collection is on display at Gainsborough's House until October 27 2019. David Moore-Gwyn, consultant and previously Deputy Chairman Sotheby's UK, said: "We have an exciting opportunity to enjoy over the next few months a particularly interesting and varied group of pictures from a collection built up over the last 30 years. The collector has personally selected what will be shown, focusing on his favourite period and, in particular, on his favourite artists, Gainsborough, Constable, Turner and Lawrence.
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"I have had the privilege of knowing the collector for over 20 years and have constantly been impressed by his keen eye, his particular understanding of the historical context of his pictures and above all by his love and enthusiasm for all that he has collected. We are indeed fortunate that he has agreed to share these works with visitors to Gainsborough's House, a museum for which he has always shown such loyal support."
Harriet Drummond, International Head of British Art on Paper, at Christie's, describes the collection as unique and offers people the opportunity to journey through an outstanding period in the history of art.
"The way in which this private collector is currently focusing on this particular period of British Art is unique. He is putting together a superlative collection of paintings and drawings of a consistently high standard, encompassing the importance of the artist, the provenance, and - most importantly - the aesthetic appeal and condition of each example.
"The development of each artist is carefully considered, with a number of examples chosen to represent different aspects of a particular artist's oeuvre. This approach makes this arguably one of the deepest, most interesting and important collections of its kind. It is the collection of a true connoisseur.
"Appropriately for an exhibition at the artist's home, but in order not to compete with the permanent collection, the collector's selection is led not by Gainsborough's portraiture but by two poetic early 1750s (Bath Period) landscapes, one on canvas and the other on paper, both evidently dependent on multiple studies from nature and with a wonderful almost rococo treatment of a tree on the right hand side of the composition."
The exhibition also features a fresh early watercolour of Bolton Abbey (circa 1798) by J M W Turner which explores the landscape of Yorkshire and offers a reminder of the importance of private patronage for an artist in the 18th Century. This picturesque topographical watercolour of an iconic English subject was painted while visiting Edward Lascelles, the 1st Earl of Harewood. Turner was commissioned to paint no fewer than seven views around the estate. This significant commission enabled him to finance his very first major sketching tour.
"The selection then takes us on a longer journey to Europe and the beating heart of Italy where we join the Grand Tour with an intensely coloured watercolour 'On the Coast of Posillipo' (1782-3); the cone of Vesuvius can just be seen to the right of the composition. John Robert Cozens' watercolour was commissioned by that most extravagant and exacting of patrons and collectors, William Beckford who had inherited his vast wealth from his father's Jamaican sugar plantations. The 100 watercolours Cozens executed for him, with their distinctive palette of deep blues and blacks, are now considered the most highly prized paintings by the artist."
Continuing the Grand Tour, the exhibition heads to Rome where we encounter one of Sir Thomas Lawrence's finest portrait drawings, of the Duchess of Devonshire - not the Duke's first wife but Elizabeth, his second, also considered a great beauty.
When Lawrence caught up with her in 1819, she had outlived the scandalous ménage a trois with Georgiana and the Duke, which was vividly depicted in the film The Duchess with Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, and was then presiding over a successful and fashionable salon in Rome.
Lawrence first met the Duchess on his arrival in London in 1805. The two instantly became great friends, the Duchess often acting as his guide to the city's antiquities. Lawrence considered this drawing, executed in pencil, black and red chalk, to be one of the finest and 'most finish'd drawings' he had ever accomplished and arranged to have it engraved for posterity by FC Lewis.
"Another outstanding portrait, also executed in Italy but this time in Florence, is The Zoffany 'Conversation Piece With Two Ladies at a Table'. The sitters are depicted in a finely furnished interior full of English furniture with an elegant table and pier glass of the 1770s. Every aspect is lovingly recorded, as are the sitters' luxurious costumes in the characteristically detailed manner of the artist's conversation pieces. In addition to the two main figures, a portrait of Maria Theresa can be seen reflected in the pier glass. The Empress is depicted in mourning dress following the death of her husband in 1765.
"Finally the collector's selection returns us to England and an exciting recent rediscovery. It is by that great Suffolk-born artist John Constable, and one of the artist's most iconic subjects, a magnificent study in oil: 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows' dating from the 1830's.
"This extraordinarily powerful painting marks the dramatic highlight of the exhibition. It is an extreme example of romantic landscape painting: an electric storm can be seen lighting the sky above and around the solid structure of the celebrated cathedral spire. As ever the sky reflects the artist's mood and his extreme melancholic and troubled state of mind following the death of his beloved wife in 1828 followed by that of his close friend John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury in 1832. This magnificent painting provides not only a significant finale to the owner's selection from his collection for the exhibition but also a fascinating contribution to our understanding of the artist's creativity."
Masters of the Golden Age: Gainsborough, Constable, Turner and Lawrence, is at Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, until October 27 2019. Admission: £7 standard entry for exhibition and museum; Free to Art Fund members.