A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH

THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH, R. A., the last and youngest of the three artists whose works characterize the period under review, was born at Ipswich in 1727, and there his early taste for art was first developed. It has already been said that he was great both in landscape and in portraiture. He seems from the first to have employed his talents on either indiscriminately, and to have continued to practise both simultaneously to the end of his life. At fifteen years of age, we are told by George Williams Fulcher, in his life of the painter, Gainsborough came to London and was lodged in the house of a silversmith, who introduced him to Hubert Gravelot, the engraver, from whom he acquired some knowledge of that art and valuable help in drawing. He was then for some time, four years it is said, under Francis Hayman, and entered himself as a student at the St. Martin's Lane Academy, a place much frequented by the artists of that day--by the juniors for practice, by the seniors as visitors and dogmatizers. It may be presumed that there were means of study for those who chose to avail themselves of them, but there can be no doubt that the place abounded with all the threadbare rules and traditional commonplaces of a profession in a state of senility, and men ready to prostrate themselves before those false gods--Lely and Kneller. Hogarth, who hated them as a clique favouring the 'black masters', stigmatizes them as a body of coach-painters, scenepainters, drapery-painters, picture-dealers, picture-cleaners and framemakers, and says that they 'thrust the canvas between the student and the sky, and tradition between him and his God'; for which latter it would be more true to read nature. Here 'hail fellow well met', they praised all art that was according to their rules, and despised all innovators. Among them, no doubt, was John Ellis ( 1701-1757), the pupil of Kneller, who expressed his contempt of Reynolds's portraits when they were shown on his return from Rome, saying, 'This will never answer; why, you don't paint in the least like Sir Godfrey!' and on the painter's attempting to reason with him on the subject, contemptuously finished the conversation by exclaiming, ' Shakespeare in poetry, and Kneller in painting, damme!' and stalked pompously out of the room.

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