If ever this nation should produce a genius sufficient to acquire
to us the honorable distinction of an English School, the name of
Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in this history of
art, among the very first of that rising name.
--Sir Joshua Reynolds
Most biographies are written with intent either to make the man a
demigod or else to damn him as a rogue who has hoodwinked the world.
Of the first-mentioned class, Weems' "Life of Washington" must ever
stand as the true type. The author is so fearful that he will not
think well of his subject that he conceals every attribute of our
common humanity, and gives us a being almost devoid of eyes, ears,
organs, dimensions, passions. Next to Weems, in point of literary
atrocity, comes John S. C. Abbott, whose life of Napoleon is a
splendid concealment of the man.
Of those who have written biographies for the sake of belittling
their subject, John Gait's "Life of Byron" occupies a conspicuous
position. But for books written for the double purpose of downing
the subject and elevating the author, Philip Thicknesse's "Life of
Gainsborough" must stand first. The book is so bad that it is
interesting, and so stupid that it will never die. Thicknesse had a
quarrel with Gainsborough, and three-fourths of the volume is given
up to a minute recital of "says he" and "says I." It is really only
an extended pamphlet written by an arch-bore with intent to get even
with his man.
The writer regards his petty affairs as of prime importance to the
world, and he shows with great care, and not a single flash of wit,
how all of Thomas Gainsborough's success in life was brought about
by Thicknesse. And then, behold! after Thicknesse had made the man
by hand, all he received for pay was ingratitude and insolence!
Thicknesse was always good, kind, unselfish and disinterested; while
Gainsborough was ungrateful, procrastinating, absurd and malicious--
this according to Thicknesse, who was on the spot and knew. Well, I
Brock-Arnold describes Thicknesse as "a fussy, ostentatious,
irrepressible busybody, without the faintest conception of delicacy
or modesty, who seems to think he has a heaven-born right to
patronize Gainsborough, and to take charge of his affairs."
The aristocratic and pompous Thicknesse presented the painter to his
friends, and also gave much advice about how he should conduct
himself. He also loaned him a fiddle and presented him a viola da
gamba, and often invited him to dinner. For these favors
Gainsborough promised to paint a portrait of Thicknesse, but never
got beyond washing in the background. During ten years he made
thirty-seven excuses for not doing the work, and as for Mrs.
Gainsborough, she once had the temerity to hand the redoubtable
Thicknesse his cocked hat and cane and show him the door. From this,
Thicknesse is emboldened to make certain remarks about Mrs.
Gainsborough's pedigree, and to suggest that if Thomas Gainsborough
had married a different woman he might have been a different
painter. Thicknesse, throughout the book, thrusts himself into the
breach and poses as the Injured One.
On reading "the work" it is hard to believe it was written in sober,
serious earnest--it contains such an intolerable deal of Thicknesse
and so little of Gainsborough. The Mother Gamp flavor is upon every
page. Andrew Lang might have written it to show the literary style
of a disgruntled dead author.
And the curious part is that, up to Eighteen Hundred Twenty-nine,
Thicknesse held the stage, and many people took his portrait of
Gainsborough as authentic. In that year Allan Cunningham put the
great painter in his proper light, and thanks to the minute
researches of Fulcher and others, we know the man as though he had
The father of Gainsborough was a tradesman of acute instincts. He
resided at Sudbury, in Suffolk, seventy miles from London. It was a
time when every thrifty merchant lived over his place of business,
so as to be on hand when buyers came; to ward off robbers; and to
sweep the sidewalk, making all tidy before breakfast. Gainsborough
pere was fairly prosperous, but not prosperous enough to support any
of his nine children in idleness. They all worked, took a Saturday
night "tub," and went to the Independent Church in decent attire on
Thomas Gainsborough was the youngest of the brood, the pet of his
parents, and the pride of his big sisters, who had nursed him and
brought him up in the way he should go. In babyhood he wasn't so
very strong; but love and freedom gradually did their perfect work,
and he evolved into a tall, handsome youth of gracious manner and
pleasing countenance. All the family were sure that Tom was going to
The eldest boy, John, known to the town as "Scheming Jack," had
invented a cuckoo-clock, and this led to a self-rocking cradle that
wound up with a strong spring; next he made a flying-machine; and so
clever was he that he painted signs that swung on hinges, and in
several instances essayed to put a picture of the prosperous owner
on the sign.
The second son, Humphrey, was a brilliant fellow, too. He made the
model of a steam-engine and showed it to a man by the name of Watt,
who was greatly interested in it; and when Watt afterward took out a
patent on it, Humphrey's heart was nearly broken, and it might have
been quite, but he said he had in hand half a dozen things worth
more than the steam-engine. As tangible proof of his power, he won a
prize of fifty pounds from the London Society for the Encouragement
of Art, for a mill that was to be turned by the tides of the sea.
The steam-engine would require fuel, but this tide-engine would be
turned by Nature at her own expense. In the British Museum is a
sundial made by Humphrey Gainsborough, and it must stand to his
credit that he made the original fireproof safe. From a fireproof
safe to liberal theology is but a step, and Humphrey Gainsborough
became a Dissenting Clergyman, passing rich on forty pounds a year.
The hopes of the family finally centered on Thomas. He had assisted
his brother John at the sign-painting, and had done several
creditable little things in drawing 'scutcheons on coach-doors for
the gentry. Besides all this, once, while sketching in his father's
orchard, a face cautiously appeared above the stone wall and for a
single moment studied the situation. The boy caught the features on
his palette, and transferred them to his picture. The likeness was
so perfect that it led to the execution of the thief who had been
robbing the orchard, and also the execution of that famous picture,
finished many years after, known as "Tom Peartree."
The orchard episode pleased the Gainsboroughs greatly. A family
council was held, and it was voted that Thomas must be sent to
London to study art. The girls gave up a dress apiece, the mother
retrimmed her summer bonnet for the Winter, the boys contributed,
and there came a day when Tom was duly ticketed and placed on top of
the great coach bound for London. Good-bys were waved until only a
cloud of dust was seen in the distance.
Gainsborough went to "Saint Martin's Drawing Academy" at London, and
the boys educated him. The art at the "Academy" seems to have been
very much akin to the art of the Writing Academies of America, where
learned bucolic professors used to teach us the mysteries of the
Spencerian System for a modest stipend. The humiliation of never
knowing "how to hold your pen" did much to send many budding
geniuses off on a tangent after grasshopper chirography, but those
who endured unto the end acquired the "wrist movement." They all
wrote alike. That is to say, they all wrote like the professor, who
wrote just like all Spencerian professors. So write the girls in
Melvil Dewey's Academy for Librarians, at Albany--God bless them
all!--they all write like Dewey.
Thomas Gainsborough at London seems to have haunted the theaters and
coffeehouses, and whenever there were pictures displayed, there was
Thomas to be found. To help out the expense-account, he worked at
engraving and made designs for a silversmith. The strong, receptive
nature of the boy showed itself, for he succeeded in getting a
goodly hold on the art of engraving, in a very short time. He
absorbed in the mass.
But he tired of the town--he wanted freedom, fresh air, the woods
and fields. Hogarth and Wilson were there in London, but the Academy
students never heard of them. And if Gainsborough ever listened to
Richardson's famous prophecy which inspired Hogarth and Reynolds, to
the effect that England would soon produce a great school of art, we
do not know it.
The young man grew homesick; he was doing nothing in London--no
career was open to him--he returned to Sudbury after an absence of
nearly two years. He thought it was defeat, but his family welcomed
him as a conquering hero. He was eighteen and looked twenty--tall,
strong, fair-haired, gentle in manner, gracious in speech.
Two of his sisters had married clergymen, and were happily situated
in neighboring towns; his brother Humphrey was "occupying the
pulpit," and causing certain local High Churchmen to have dreams of
things tumbling about their ears.
The sisters and mother wanted Tom to be a preacher, too--he was so
straight and handsome and fine, and his eyes were so tender and
But he preferred to paint. He painted in the woods and fields, by
streams and old mills, and got on good terms with all the flocks of
sheep and cattle in the neighborhood.
The art of landscape-painting developed from an accident. The early
Italian painters used landscape only as a background for figures.
All they pictured were men, women and children, and to bring these
out rightly they introduced scenery. Imagine a theater with scenes
set and no person on the stage, and you get the idea of landscape up
to the time of Gainsborough. Landscape! it was nothing--a blank.
Wilson first painted landscapes as backgrounds for other men to draw
portraits upon. A marine scene was made merely that a Commodore
might stand in cocked hat, a spyglass under his arm, in the
foreground, while the sun peeps over the horizon begging permission
to come up. Gradually these incomplete pictures were seen hanging in
shop-windows, but for them there was no market. They were merely
Gainsborough drew pictures of the landscape because he loved it. He
seems to be the first English artist who loved the country for its
own sake. Old bridges, winding roadways, gnarled oaks, cattle
grazing, and all the manifold beauties of quiet country life
fascinated him. He educated the collector, and educated the people
into a closer observation and study of Nature. Gainsborough stood at
the crossways of progress and pointed the way.
With Hogarth's idea that a picture should teach a lesson and have a
moral, he had no sympathy. And with Reynolds, who thought there was
nothing worth picturing but the human face, he took issue. Beauty to
him was its own excuse for being. However, in all of Gainsborough's
landscapes you find the human interest somewhere--man has not been
entirely left out. But from being the one important thing, he sinks
simply into a part of the view that lies before you. Turner's maxim,
"You can not leave man out," he annexed from Gainsborough. And
Corot's landscapes, where the dim, shadowy lovers sit on the
bankside under the great oaks--the most lovely pictures ever painted
by the hand of man--reveal the extreme evolution from a time when
the lovers occupied the center of the stage, and the landscape was
only an accessory.
And it is further interesting to note that the originator of English
landscape-painting was also a great portrait-painter, and yet he
dared paint portraits with absolutely no scenery back of them--a
thing which up to that time was done only by a man who hadn't the
ability to paint landscape. Thus do we prove Rabelais' proposition,
"The man who has a well-filled strongbox can surely afford to go
Thomas Gainsborough, aged nineteen, was one day intently sketching
in a wood near Sudbury, when the branches suddenly parted and out
into a little open space stepped Margaret Burr. This young woman had
taken up her abode in Sudbury during the time the young man was in
London, and he had never met her, although he had probably heard her
praises sounded. Everybody around there had heard of her. She was
the handsomest woman in all Suffolk--and knew it. She lived with her
"uncle," and the gossips, who looked after these little things,
divided as to whether she was the daughter of one of the exiled
Stuarts, or the natural child of the Duke of Bedford. Anyway, she
was a true princess, in face, form and bearing, and had an income of
her own of two hundred pounds a year. Her pride was a thing so
potent that the rustic swains were chilled at the sight of her, and
the numerous suitors sighed and shot their lovesick glances from a
Let that pass: the branches parted and Margaret stepped out into the
open. She thought she was alone, when all at once her eyes looked
full into the eyes of the young artist--not a hundred feet away. She
was startled; she blushed, stammered and tried to apologize for the
intrusion. Her splendid self-possession had failed her for once--she
was going to flee by the way she had come. "Hold that position,
please--stand just as you are!" called the artist in a tone of
Even the proudest of women are willing to accept orders when the
time is ripe; and I am fully convinced that to be domineered over by
the right man is a thing all good women warmly desire.
Margaret Burr, the proud beauty, stood stock-still, and Thomas
Gainsborough admitted her into his landscape and his heart.
This is not a love-story, or we might begin here and extend our
booklet into a volume. Suffice it to say that within a few short
months after their first meeting the young woman, being of royal
blood, exercised her divine right and "proposed." She proposed just
as Queen Victoria did later. And then they were married--both under
twenty--and lived happily ever after.
It is a great mistake to assume that pride and a high degree of
commonsense can not go together. Margaret knew how to manage. After
a short stay in Sudbury the couple rented a cottage at Ipswich for
six pounds a year--a dovecot with three rooms. The proud beauty
would not let the place be profaned by a servant: she did all the
work herself; and if she wanted help, she called on her husband.
Base is the man who will not fetch and carry for the woman he loves.
They were accounted the handsomest and most distinguished couple in
all Sudbury; and when they attended church, there was so much
craning of necks and so many muffled exclamations of admiration,
that the clergyman made it a point not to begin the service until
they were safely seated.
They were very happy: they loved each other, and so loved life and
everything and everybody, and God's great green out-o'-doors was
their playhouse. Margaret's income was quite sufficient for their
needs, and mad ambition passed them by. Gainsborough drew pictures
and painted and sketched, and then gave his pictures away.
Music was his passion, and whenever at the concerts held round about
there the player did exceptionally well, Gainsborough would proffer
a picture in exchange for the instrument used. In this way the odd
corners of their house got filled with violins, lutes, hautboys,
kettledrums and curious stringed things that have died the death and
are now extinct. At this time, if any one had asked Gainsborough his
profession, he would have said, "I am a musician."
Fifteen years had slipped into the eternity that lies behind--"years
not lost, for we can turn the hourglass and live them all over in
sweet memory," once said Gainsborough to his wife. The constant
sketching had developed much skill in the artist's hand. Thicknesse
had come puffing alongside, and insisted out of pure friendliness on
taking the artist and wife in tow. They laughed at him behind his
back, and carried on conversation over his head, and dropped jokes
at his feet by looks and pantomime, and communicated in cipher--for
true lovers always evolve a code.
Thicknesse was sincere and serious, and surely was not wholly bad--
even Mephisto is not bad all of the time. Mrs. Gainsborough once
said she would prefer Mephisto to Thicknesse, because Mephisto had a
sense of humor. Very often they naturally referred to Thicknesse as
"Thickhead"--the joke was too obvious to let pass entirely, until
each "took the pledge," witnessed by Gainsborough's favorite
Thicknesse had a Summer House at Bath, and thither he insisted his
friends should go. He would vouch for them and introduce them into
the best society. He would even introduce them to Beau Nash, "the
King of Bath," and arrange to have Gainsborough do himself the honor
of painting the "King's" picture. Two daughters nearing womanhood
reminded Mr. and Mrs. Gainsborough that an increase in income would
be well; and Thicknesse promised many commissions from his friends,
The cheapest house they could find in Bath was fifty pounds a year.
"Do you want to go to jail?" asked Mrs. Gainsborough of her husband
when he proposed signing the lease. The worldly Thicknesse proposed
that they should take this house at fifty pounds a year, or else
take another at one hundred fifty at his expense. They decided to
risk it at the rate of fifty pounds a year for a few months, and
were duly settled.
Thicknesse was very proud of his art connections. He had but one
theme--Gainsborough! People of note began to find their way to the
studio of the painter-man in the Circus.
Gainsborough was gracious, handsome and healthy--fresh from the
country. He met all nobility on a frank equality--God had made him a
gentleman. His beautiful wife, now in her early thirties, was much
sought in local society circles.
Everybody of note who came to Bath visited Gainsborough's studio.
Garrick sat to him and played such pranks with his countenance that
each time the artist looked up from his easel he saw a new man. "You
have everybody's face but your own," said Gainsborough to Garrick,
and dismissing the man he completed the picture from memory. This
portrait and also pictures of General Honeywood, the Comedian Quin,
Lady Grosvenor, the Duke of Argyle, besides several landscapes, were
sent up to the Academy Exhibition at London.
George the Third saw them and sent word down that he wished
Gainsborough lived in London, so he could sit to him.
The carrier, Wiltshire, who packed the pictures and took them up to
London, had a passion for art that filled his heart, and he refused
to accept gold, that base and common drudge 'twixt man and man, for
his services in an art way. And so Gainsborough presented him with a
picture. In fact, during the term of years that Gainsborough lived
at Bath, he gave Wiltshire, the modest driver of an express-cart, a
dozen or more pictures and sketches. He gave him the finest picture
he ever painted: that portrait of the old Parish Clerk. Gainsborough
was not so good a judge of his own work as Wiltshire was. Wiltshire
kept all the "Gainsboroughs" he could get, reveled in them during
his long life, basked and bathed his soul in their beauty, and
dying, bequeathed them to his children.
Had Wiltshire been moved by nothing but keen, cold, worldly wisdom--
which he wasn't--he could not have done better. Even friendship,
love and beauty have their Rialto--the appraiser footed up the
Wiltshire estate at more than fifty thousand pounds.
Gainsborough found himself with more work than he could very well
care for, so he raised his prices for a "half-length" from five
pounds to forty; and for a "full-length" from ten pounds to one
hundred, in order to limit the number of his patrons. It doubled
them. His promised picture of Thicknesse was relegated behind the
door, and a check was sent the great man for five hundred pounds for
his borrowed viola da gamba and other favors.
But Thicknesse was not to be bought off. He took charge of the
studio, looked after the visitors, explaining this and that, telling
how he had discovered the artist and rescued him from obscurity,
giving scraps of his history, and presenting little impromptu
lectures on art as he had found it.
The fussy Thicknesse used to be funny to Mr. and Mrs. Gainsborough,
but now he had developed into a nuisance. To escape him, they
resolved to turn the pretty compliment of King George into a genuine
request. They packed up and moved to London.
The fifty pounds a year at Bath had seemed a great responsibility,
but when Gainsborough took Schomberg House in Pall Mall at three
hundred pounds, he boasts of his bargain. About this time "Scheming
Jack" turns up asking for a small loan to perfect a promising
scheme. The gracious brother replies that although his own expenses
are more than a thousand pounds a year, he is glad to accommodate
him, and hopes the scheme will prosper--which of course he knew it
would not, for success is a matter of red corpuscle.
Almost immediately on reaching London the Royal Academy recognized
Gainsborough's presence by electing him a member of its Council.
However, he never attended a single meeting. He did not need the
Academy. Royalty stood in line at his studio-doors, and he took his
pick of sitters. He painted five different portraits of the King,
various pictures of his children, did the rascally heir-apparent
ideally, and made a picture of Queen Charlotte that Goldsmith said
"looked like a sensible woman."
He painted portraits of his lovely wife, Richard Brinsley Sheridan,
Burke, Walpole, the dictator of Strawberry Hill, and immortalized
the hats worn by the smashing, dashing Duchess of Devonshire. One of
these pictures of Her Grace comes very close to us Americans, as it
was cut from the frame one dark, foggy night in London, sealed up in
the false bottom of a trunk and brought to New York. Here it lay for
more than twenty years, when Colonel Patricius Sheedy, connoisseur
and critic, arranged for its delivery to the heirs of the original
owners on payment of some such trifle as twenty-five thousand
dollars. This superb picture, with its romantic past, was not
destined to traverse the Atlantic again; for thanks to the
generosity of J. Pierpont Morgan, it has now found a permanent home
at Harvard College.
It is only a little way back from civilization to savagery. We live
in a wonderful time: the last twenty-five years have seen changes
that mark epochs in the onward and upward march. To mention but two,
we might name the almost complete evolution of our definition as to
what constitutes "Christianity"; and in material things, the use of
electricity, which has worked such a revolution as even Jules Verne
never conjured forth.
Americans are somewhat given to calling our country "The Land of the
Free"--as if there were no other. But the individual in England
today has greater freedom of speech and action than the individual
has in America. In every large city of America there is an extent of
petty officialism and dictation that the English people would not
for a day endure. Our policemen, following their Donnybrook
proclivities, are all armed with clubs, and allowing prenatal
influences to lead, they unlimber the motto, "Wherever you see a
head, hit it," on slight excuse. In Central Park, New York, for
instance, the citizen who "talks back" would speedily be clubbed
into silence--but try that thing in Hyde Park, London, if you
please, and see what would follow! But, thank heaven, we are working
out our salvation all the time--things are getting better, and it is
the "dissatisfied" who are making them go. Were we satisfied, there
would be no progress. During the sixty-one years of Gainsborough's
life, wondrous changes were made in the world of thought and
feeling. And the good natured but sturdy quality of such as he was
the one strong factor that worked for freedom. Gainsborough was
never a tuft-hunter: he toadied to no man, and his swinging
independence refused to see any special difference between himself
and the sleek, titled nobility. He asked no favors of the Academy,
no quarter from his rivals, no grants from royalty. This dissenting
attitude probably cost him the mate of the knighthood which went to
Sir Joshua, but behold the paradox! he was usually closer to the
throne than those who lay in wait for honors. Gainsborough sought
for nothing--he did his work, preserved the right mental attitude,
and all good things came to him.
It is a curious thing to note that while England was undergoing a
renaissance of art, and realizing a burst of freedom, Italy, that
land so long prolific in greatness, produced not a single artist who
rose above the dull and commonplace. Has Nature only just so much
genius at her disposal?
The reign of the Georges worked a blessed, bloodless revolution for
the people of England. They reigned better than they knew.
Gainsborough saw the power of the monarch transferred to the people,
and the King become the wooden figurehead of the ship, instead of
its Captain. So, thanks to the weakness of George the Third and the
short-sighted policy of Lord North, America achieved her
independence about the same time that England did hers.
Theological freedom and political freedom go hand in hand, for our
conception of Deity is always a pale reflection of our chief ruler.
Did not Thackeray say that the people of England regarded Jehovah as
an infinite George the Fourth?
Gainsborough saw Whitefield and Wesley entreating that we should go
to God direct; Howard was letting the sunshine into dark cells;
Clarkson, Sharp and Wilberforce had begun their crusade against
slavery, and their arms and arguments were to be transferred a
hundred years later to William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and
Henry Ward Beecher, who bought "Beecher Bibles" for Old John Brown,
Osawatomie Brown, whose body, no longer needed, was hanged on a
sour-apple tree while his soul goes marching on.
In the realm of letters, Gainsborough saw changes occur no less
important than in the political field. Samuel Johnson bowled into
view, scolding and challenging the Ensconced Smug; Goldsmith scaled
the Richardson ghetto and wrote his touching and deathless verse;
Fielding's saffron comedies were produced at Drury Lane; Cowper,
nearly the same age as the artist, did his work and lapsed into
imbecility, surviving him sixteen years; Richardson became the happy
father of the English Novel; Sterne took his Sentimental Journey;
Chatterton, the meteor, flashed across the literary sky; Gray mused
in the churchyard and laid his head upon the lap of earth; Burns was
promoted from the Excise to be the idol of all Scotland. The year
that Gainsborough died, Napoleon, a slim slip of a youth seventeen
years old, was serving as a sub-lieutenant of artillery; while
Wellington had just received his first commission and was marching
zigzag, by the right oblique, to meet him eighteen miles from
Brussels on the night of a ball sung into immortality by Byron; Watt
had invented the steam-engine, thanks to Humphrey Gainsborough;
Arkwright had made his first spinning-frame; Humphrey Davy was
working at problems (with partial success) to be solved later by
Edison of Menlo Park; Lord Hastings was tried, and it was while
listening to the speech of Sheridan--the one speech of his life, the
best words of which, according to his butler, were, "My Lords, I am
done"--that Gainsborough caught his death o' cold.
Gainsborough never went abroad to study; he painted things at home,
and painted as he saw them. He never imagined he was a great artist,
so took no thought as to the future of his work. He set so little
store on his pictures that he did not think even to sign them. The
masterpiece that satisfied him was never done.
His was a happy life of work and love, with no cloud to obscure the
sun, save possibly now and then a bumptious reproof from Sir
Thicknesse or the occasional high-handed haughtiness of a Hanging
Committee. Thus passed his life in work, music, laughter and love;
but to music he ever turned for rest. He made more money than all of
his seven brothers and sisters combined, five times over, and
divided with them without stint. He educated several of his nieces
and nephews, and one nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, he adopted and
helped make an acceptable artist.
Of that peculiarly-to-be-dreaded malady, artistic jealousy,
Gainsborough had not a trace. His failure to court Sir Joshua's
smile led foolish folks to say he was jealous--not so! he was simply
able to get along without Sir Joshua, and he did. Yet he admired
Reynolds' works and admired the man, but was too wise to force any
close personal relationship.
He divided with West, the American, the favor of the Court, and with
Romney and Reynolds the favor of the town. He got his share, and
more, of all those things which the world counts worth while. The
gratitude of his heart was expressed by his life--generous, kind,
joyous--never cast down except when he thought he had spoken harshly
or acted unwisely-loyal to his friends, forgetting his enemies.
He did a deathless work, for it is a work upon which other men have
built. He prepared the way for those who were to come after.
It is a great privilege to live, to work, to feel, to endure, to
know: to realize that one is the instrument of Deity--being used by
the Maker to work out His inscrutable purposes; to see vast changes
occur in the social fabric and to know that men stop, pause and
consider: to comprehend that this world is a different place because
you have lived. Yes, it is a great privilege to live! Gainsborough
lived--he reveled in life, and filled his days to their brim, ever
and always grateful to the Unknown that had guided his hand and led
him forth upon his way.
It is a great privilege to live!