Magazine article The Spectator

Brilliant and Elusive Debut

Magazine article The Spectator

Brilliant and Elusive Debut

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1 Young Gainsborough

(National Gallery, till 31 March) Damn Gentlemen,' wrote Thomas Gainsborough to his musician friend William Jackson in 1767. `There is not such a set of Enemies to a real artist in the world as they are, if not kept at a proper distance.' But this was strange, because, as is shown by the National Gallery's exhibition Young Gainsborough, no one has so accurately caught the appearance and habitat of the English rural gentry as did the painter in his youth. Mutatis mutandis, in cords and pullovers rather than tricorn hats and buckled shoes, one can still find the same plain but pleasant faces. the same gangling limbs in converted Georgian rectories up and down the land.

But these figures in Gainsborough's early portraits are specifically local gentry and members of the East Anglian middle classes - Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews of the Auberies, near Sudbury, John Plampin, of Chadacre Hall, near Lavenham, The Revd John Chafy, curate of Bricett, playing his violincello in a landscape. Grander sitters, great aristocratic magnates and royalty, came later when Gainsborough's style itself had grown grander.

Early on, he kept these minor Suffolk notables quite literally at a proper distance - they are painted far below life size, embedded in a ravishing rococo landscape, as if seen across a few yards of grass and tree-roots. There are many awkwardnesses and inconsistancies in Gainsborough's figure drawing at this stage -- when he was in his teens and early twenties -- quite farcically so at times. Mr and Mrs Carter, for example, are an ill-assorted couple, because, though seated side by side on the same bench, he is drawn on a scale at least twice as large as his wife, with the result that she resembles a largish ventriloquist's dummy.

If one looks closely at even Mrs Robert Andrews, in one of the most familiar of all English paintings, she seems to be floating a foot or so above that pretty wrought-iron bench, her feet implausibly small and far from her waist. These are the faults of a barely trained, almost naive artist. But the magic is such, you don't want to look hard. What you notice is the miraculous balance between truthfulness and artifice. The lumpy-featured, sharp-nosed, common-sensical couple are set in a delectable landscape of apple green, peach, powder blue and dove grey. It is a perfectly English picture: down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and at the same time utterly romantic.

The portrait of John Plampin is an almost equally beguiling image of the country gent, taking his ease on a bank, his gundog by his side, with a leafy Suffolk prospect laid out below him. How did Gainsborough, when scarcely out of his teens, arrive at such results? It is not entirely easy to say.

Gainsborough was scarcely an enigmatic man - his recorded remarks give an impression of debonair charm, and garrulous openness. The royal favour he enjoyed later on resulted in part from his being able `to talk bawdy to the King, and morality to the Prince of Wales'. He was fond of a glass from time to time. One of his daughters told the diarist Farington that `her father often exceeded the bounds of temperance, being occasionally unable to work for a week afterwards'. He wondered at the `equal application' of his friend and rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But - also unlike Reynolds -- he was not an intellectual, avoiding the company of literary men `who were his aversion' and `scarcely ever' reading a book. As Malcolm Cormack has pointed out, while Reynolds cultivated the friendship of Dr Johnson, Gainsborough's acquaintances tended to be musicians. …

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