Gainsborough inspired artist's portraits

John Bellany and Thomas Gainsborough, Gainsborough's House, Sudbury until September 20 John Bellany, a member of the Royal Academy, has always been a fervent admirer of Thomas Gainsborough and so must be pleased to see his work exhibited in such a prestigious location.

John Bellany and Thomas Gainsborough, Gainsborough's House, Sudbury until September 20

John Bellany, a member of the Royal Academy, has always been a fervent admirer of Thomas Gainsborough and so must be pleased to see his work exhibited in such a prestigious location. The exhibition features portraits of Bellanys' friends and relatives. We see his grandchildren, and his mother, Nana, sitting in a yellow armchair, her hands clasping a teddy bear, her large blue serious eyes holding the painter's gaze, and, in My Daughter and Luke, the new mother, with tired eyes, holds a tiny baby.

Painted in oils on large canvases, in a riot of primary colours, some of John Bellany subjects have distinctive, over-large heads and eyes, and many are depicted surrounded by allegorical images.

Those hung alongside the works of Gainsborough, give us the opportunity to see how two painters, separated by over two hundred years of evolving artistic styles, interpret similar subjects. Mrs Thomas Cobbold, with her daughter Ann, in a landscape with lamb and ewe, painted by Gainsborough in 1752, hangs alongside Bellany's Homage to Gainsborough, 2008. Although the paintings are very different, there are obvious similarities to ponder over too.


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The centre piece of the exhibition is a large triptych, Fortunatus, 2008 which includes Bellany's family, past and present, characters from his imagination, birds and fish. A blaze of colour, whether you love it or hate it, it is one of those works that holds the attention.

In complete contrast to the ecstatic use of colour in the larger oil paintings, the most moving works in this exhibition are the small pencil and paper self-portraits that Bellany drew when in hospital recovering after a liver transplant in 1988. One title, Death touched my shoulder last night, says it all.

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It was always going to be risky to bring together the work of an 18th century and a 21st century painter and, standing in the home of the old master, you can't help wondering what Gainsborough would have made of the breath-taking, exciting, but sometimes startling, work of his admirer.

Rachel Sloane

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