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Thomas Gainsborough

Nature was his teacher and the woods of Suffolk his academy; here he would pass in solitude his mornings, in making a sketch of an antiquated tree, a marshy brook, a few cattle, a shepherd and his flock, or any other accidental objects that were presented...

Henry Bate Dudley, Obituary of Thomas Gainsborough (Morning Herald, 4 August 1788)

Thomas Gainsborough, Self-portrait, sketching, c.1750-5 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–­­88) was the youngest son of a family of cloth merchants, from the town of Sudbury in Suffolk. From these relatively humble beginnings, he went on to become a founding member of the Royal Academy and a dazzling portraitist of fashionable sitters in London, Bath and at the court of George III.

Gainsborough is best known as a portrait painter, but in the first part of his career he painted landscapes. This early passion for landscape never left him. Whenever he could, he made prints and drawings of landscape subjects, and in a letter written in the 1760s, he famously wrote ‘I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips [landscapes] and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease.’

Although Gainsborough found money and fame from painting portraits, his first love was for the landscape of his native Suffolk. As a young man, he made many drawings and paintings of the countryside around his home town, capturing its wooded glades, muddy hillocks, clusters of trees, and small ponds. He paid close attention to the details of specific trees and the variations in their leaves and bark, and to the burdock plants common in the local verges and woodland. One anecdote from Gainsborough’s youth described the boy’s father as having found ‘a quantity of his son’s sketches of stumps of trees, styles, sheep and shepherd boys, which had been secreted in various holes and corners’.

Gainsborough was sent to London while still a teenager, with some money left to him by one of his uncles. He probably arrived in the capital city in about 1740 and spent several formative years there. He trained briefly with a silversmith, and attended the St Martin’s Lane Academy with other young artists and craftsmen. Despite his youth, he secured several prestigious commissions. He was among several artists chosen by William Hogarth to paint a roundel for a room at the Foundling Hospital, and made a decorative painting for the supper-boxes in the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall.

Thomas Gainsborough, Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Sussex, c.1748 © The National Gallery, London

In around 1748, Gainsborough decided to return to Sudbury. He had recently married Margaret Burr, a match that had brought the couple a considerable income of £200. The death of his father that year may also have encouraged a move back to his hometown. Even after his return to Suffolk, Gainsborough continued to travel to and from London, picking up work such as painting landscape backgrounds for portraits by Francis Hayman.

In this period after his return from London, Gainsborough’s intense engagement with the Suffolk landscape continued. He produced a number of naturalistic landscape paintings.

The best-known and most developed of these landscape paintings is Cornard Wood, painted about 1748. It depicts an area of woodland near Great Cornard, about two miles (3km) from Sudbury. This was common land, and local people could use it freely to gather wood, graze animals, and dig for marl or sand. Gainsborough’s painting is rich in colour and detail, capturing the different textures and colours of foliage, transitions from path to sandy bank to pool, and is busy with figures and animals at work.

Gainsborough was hoping to make a living from his paintings of local landscapes, but he found his attention – and the opportunity to turn a profit – increasingly diverted into portrait-making. Gainsborough always remembered his landscapes with nostalgia, looking back on this period in a letter of 22 May 1788 with ‘such a fondness for my first imitations of little Dutch Landskips’. He consciously acknowledged the close affinity that these works had with naturalistic Dutch landscape paintings.