Thomas Gainsborough: Like Jerry Lee Lewis with a paintbrush

The statue of Thomas Gainsborough in the centre of Sudbury. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The statue of Thomas Gainsborough in the centre of Sudbury. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

Sudbury’s famous son ‘would be dynamite in polite society today’. James Hamilton’s new biography is a colourful read

James Hamilton's biography of Thomas Gainsborough

James Hamilton's biography of Thomas Gainsborough - Credit: Archant

Thomas Gainsborough lived as if electricity shot through his sinews and crackled at his finger ends. There is a fire in Gainsborough: it lights up his paintings, but beyond its flicker it also reveals a lifelong sense of unease, and a way of seeing things that he may not always have anticipated.”

By heck, that’s a lively way of beginning a fresh look at Sudbury’s most famous son. More of that soon. First, we need to recap the events of this week.

You might have felt the frisson running through the art world. It concerned said Thomas Gainsborough.

It was claimed that 26 or so sketches by the 18th Century Suffolk artist had been incorrectly attributed to Sir Edwin Landseer.

They appear to have lain in the wrong place – in an album at Windsor Castle that’s part of the Royal Collection put together in the 1800s.

It’s left the Royal Collection’s curator of prints and drawings very excited. She called the discovery of these early works – black and white chalk drawings of landscapes in the Sudbury area – really significant.

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One study is linked to Gainsborough’s mid-1700s painting Cornard Wood, Near Sudbury, Suffolk, which is in the National Gallery.

A sketch of Cornard Wood which is now one of 26 being attributed to Thomas Gainsborough. Picture: RO

A sketch of Cornard Wood which is now one of 26 being attributed to Thomas Gainsborough. Picture: ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST/Copyright: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II - Credit: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Thing is, Hugh Belsey doesn’t buy it. The academic from Bury St Edmunds, curator of Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury for 23 years, said unequivocally: “I went to see these drawings four years ago. They are not by Gainsborough.”

He insists the artist was far too skilful to have produced the sketches in question, with the use of chalk “very clumsy” in comparison to Gainsborough.

They are, he suggests, more likely to be an attempt at a copy.

Among the art experts convinced these works are the real thing is James Hamilton. Indeed, he says a sketch of a woman shows a resemblance to Gainsborough’s wife Margaret.

James features the apparent discovery of the misfiled Gainsboroughs in his new biography of a man labelled a chameleon of the art world.

The debate is set to run and run, but the difference of opinion shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow Gainsborough: A Portrait, due out next month and from which that “crackled at his finger ends” paragraph is taken.

Lovers of art will devour every detail. For those of us whose knowledge of the artist is limited to his quiet and still paintings, it breathes life into the man who paced the paths and fields we know.

Author James Hamilton

Author James Hamilton - Credit: Archant

It’s rich in detail and whips along. In a nutshell, we’re told this easy-going Suffolk lad rose to the heights of fashion because of his natural talent and became a “rake-on-the-make” in London.

He married a duke’s daughter with a private income, earned a fortune as the top society-portrait painter in Bath and the capital, and became the charming friend of George III and Queen Charlotte.

Explaining the forces that formed the artist, James writes: “Economic prosperity in eighteenth-century Britain was volatile and unreliable, a condition that Gainsborough experienced within his family during his youth. If that taught him anything, it was to be a single-minded opportunist, and to realise that painting had its own special power: to create image, to make money, and to build friendship.

“In his portraits Gainsborough echoed the changes he experienced around him: the early work presents formal, stiff-necked people, doll-like figures who might be sucking lemons. Later subjects relax into their backgrounds as if they swayed with the wind in the trees. His landscapes, however, move another way, from early attention to such detail as modern methods of farming, indicating wealth, good sense, engagement and ownership, to a later dreamland, nostalgia and desire for escape.”

In his introductory scene-setting – before taking us from Suffolk to London, back to Suffolk, off to Bath and then once more to the capital – the biographer tells us Thomas was pretty blessed: skilled at draughtsmanship and handwriting as well as with his brush. He wasn’t dull, either. Some of the things he wrote were a bit near the knuckle, it seems – “some letters were found to be absolutely filthy, and after his death were destroyed by appalled family members”, James tells us, adding: “A particularly critical acquaintance spoke of ‘a very dissolute, capricious man, inordinately fond of women and not very delicate in his sentiments of honour’.

“In the light of these remarks, and what prompted them, it is likely that his most famous painting, Mr and Mrs Andrews, is also, silently and intentionally, the one most heavily spiked with sexual innuendo.”

Who’d have thought?

Thomas Gainsborough is a famous son of Suffolk, and honoured in his hometown of Sudbury. Picture: GR

Thomas Gainsborough is a famous son of Suffolk, and honoured in his hometown of Sudbury. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

James’s “personality portrait” comes rich and rapid: quick-talking, reddening when embarrassed, “generally kind, generous and charitable”.

The other side of genius, though, seems to have been mood swings and volatility. James cites the slashing of a canvas in a temper when a client refused it, and twice splitting from the Royal Academy when he was at the peak of his powers, which dented his public reputation “and dramatically reduced the audience for his art”.

James goes so far as to say Gainsborough was not balanced.

“As his sometime friend Philip Thicknesse put it, there was ‘certainly only a very thin membrane which kept this wonderful man within the pale of reason’.

“Who was he like? Jerry Lee Lewis with a paintbrush might not be far from the mark.”

There’s another cracking quote, from actor David Garrick. He said of his friend: “his cranium is so crammed with genius of every kind that it is in danger of bursting upon you, like a steam-engine overcharged”.

In terms of the art, James says we won’t find revolutionary or philosophical ideas expressed in Gainsborough’s paintings, nor trenchant social comment and criticism of the status quo.

“What Thomas Gainsborough was, it seems, is a clear-eyed, hard-working alchemist who could turn muck, misery and pride into elegant, seductive and eloquent images of either riches or poverty.

“Indeed, he tended to paint at the extremes: his subjects were, by and large, only the very rich and the very poor…

“He could empathise most closely both with the strains of power and position, with human vanity, and with the momentary, passing pleasures of rural life experienced by country people.”

The biographer adds: “Gainsborough was a country lad; he knew the cold breath of poverty and the countless little local tragedies… But Gainsborough could also maintain an importance with his sitters, teach princesses to paint, and walk with kings.”

Home life? Also volatile, it seems.

James says wife Margaret was apparently hot-tempered and controlling, knowing how much her husband was charging for his portraits, if not his landscapes. The author compares the couple to Beatrice and Benedick, the “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” pair from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

The book’s a good read. Now, it seems to me, someone really needs to make a film…

Gainsborough: A Portrait is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on August 10, £25