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From One Studio to Another

Sir Edwin Landseer, The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with two Dogs (detail), c.1864-5, RCIN 403220 ©

Though many artists collected drawings by other artists, we still do not know how Gainsborough’s drawings came to be in the possession of Sir Edwin Landseer. It is not unusual that an artist of Landseer’s stature would have owned drawings of this kind: as well as buying drawings that they liked, artists might obtain drawings that were useful as models for study or improvement, or acquire them as a signifier of one’s wealth, status and sophistication. In this instance, they evidently became confused with Landseer’s own drawings by the executors of his studio. But their path from Gainsborough’s studio to Landseer’s is more difficult to trace.

In part, what makes them hard to identify in earlier records is the fact that Gainsborough was both a prolific draughtsman and very generous with his drawings, giving many away as gifts to friends. Gainsborough’s friend Philip Thicknesse boasted that the artist had given him some of his earliest ‘sketches of Trees, Rocks, Shepherds, Ploughmen, and pastoral scenes, drawn on slips of paper, or old dirty letters’. Occasionally, Gainsborough disposed of his drawings by putting them up for sale. As a young man he sold landscape drawings from the window of an art dealer in London, and in 1759, on leaving Ipswich, he sold another group of his ‘original drawings in the Landskip [landscape] way’.

One of the landscape sketchbooks sold after Gainsborough's death is now in the British Museum. Others have not been traced. Thomas Gainsborough, A woody landscape, c.1750 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Most of Gainsborough’s landscape drawings seem to have passed to friends during his lifetime, or were dispersed by his family in several sales after his death.

It is very likely that these 25 drawings have been together as a group since they were in Gainsborough’s studio. Before they were rebound for the Royal Library, the drawings were already kept in an album, described in correspondence with Landseer’s studio in the Royal Archives as a book ‘with some landscapes in it’.

It is tempting to suggest that these drawings were among the ten ‘Genuine Sketch Books, and Studies’ sold in Gainsborough’s estate sale (Christie’s, London, 11 May 1799, lots 81−89). Some of these ‘books of sketches’ have been traced today (for example, the Payne Knight sketchbook in the British Museum), but others have not. The most likely possibilities are lots 81 or 86, described as books of ‘sketches from nature’, although the numbers of drawings in each book do not quite match up to these 25 sheets.

Further information may yet come to light to establish the complete provenance of these drawings.