Magazine article The Spectator

How the Master of Landscape Was Transformed

Magazine article The Spectator

How the Master of Landscape Was Transformed

Article excerpt

GAINSBOROUGH IN BATH by Susan Sloman Yale, L35, pp. 266, ISBN 0300097115

In 1760s Bath, the promenade from the Pump Room to the tree-lined Walks of Orange Grove passed a row of luxury shops and a sign reading `Mr Gainsborough, Painter'. The artist's showroom shared the ground floor of a handsome town house with his sister's millinery shop, and the smell of the per-fumes on sale mingled with the oil paint drying on masterpieces such as `Countess Howe' and `The Byam Family'.

In London, prints publicised an artist; in the crowded winter resort a showroom invited visitors with time and money on their hands to judge the likeness of a celebrity who might have been glimpsed in the Pump Room a few minutes before. If tempted, the client ascended to the artist's studio on the floor above. Gainsborough shared the grand house in Abbey Street, originally built for the Duke of Kingston, with his sister and her paying lodgers; she was one of ten members of the family to follow him from their native Suffolk to the booming spa in Somerset. Hung in a backroom were his views of the countryside around Bath, inhabited by the figures of colliers and gipsies encountered on excursions during the summer, when the resort was quiet and he could discuss art theory, new lenses and pigments with the gentleman collectors, doctors and apothecaries permanently resident in the city.

Every detail of the above is new research published by Dr Susan Sloman in her Gainsborough in Bath, a book which promises to be the definitive study of the painter's 16 years between leaving Sudbury in 1758 and departing from London in 1774. Arriving, he was `an accomplished minor master of great charm'- in the words of Ellis Waterhouse - and charging five guineas for a head. Within a few years he was painting some of the most breathtaking portraits in Europe and had become `one of the great masters of poetical landscape'. Sloman's purpose is to explain this transformation.

In the last two decades art historians such as Marcia Pointon and Michael Rosenthal have corrected the Victorians' image of Gainsborough as a `natural developer' by demonstrating his restless intellectual curiosity and his awareness of social change in the countryside. This book applies this approach, and is also distinguished by many years of research into local newspapers and visitors' diaries, cataloguing pictures and discovering physical traces as slight but as suggestive as the shadow of the window - now blocked - which lit the studio in which `The Blue Boy' stood to pose. Gainsborough's Bath becomes as vivid as Hogarth's London.

To begin with, Sloman argues that Bath was `fleetingly, one of the cultural centres of Europe': a resort too easily caricatured for its indulgence in gambling, dancing and shopping also had the highest concentration of artists, musicians and writers outside the metropolis. A scandal about female nudity at the Mineral Water Hospital, for example, reveals the existence of the first art academy in the provinces.

On the other hand, that Bath was the showiest city in England - Josiah Wedgwood noted that shop windows were gaudier than in London - in part explains Gainsborough's transformation from the doll-like charm of the Suffolk portraits to what Michael Kitson described as the 'flashy' brilliance of a Countess Howe or Louisa Byam. His canvases continued the `peoplewatching' of the resort, and his sparkling touches of paint were as sensitive to light as rosy cheeks on the frosty morning Promenade or the fashions designed to glitter under the chandeliers in the Assembly Rooms. …

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