Ge­of­frey Hep­ton­stall

Not The Hum­ble Crafts­man

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

Gains­bor­ough: a Por­trait, James Hamil­ton, Wei­den­feld and Nicolson, Au­gust 2017, £25.00 (Hard­cover)

How well do we know Gains­bor­ough? The art is fa­mil­iar, the artist less so. The fa­mous por­traits of el­e­gant Ge­or­gian gen­try in idyl­lic land­scapes, the land­scapes them­selves, and the long res­i­dence in fash­ion­able Bath con­veys the idea per­haps of a cour­te­ous, def­er­en­tial and mod­est ser­vant of an aris­to­cratic Eng­land. It is James Hamil­ton’s in­ten­tion to find the artist be­hind the art. His Gains­bor­ough is an artist por­tray­ing an aris­to­cratic ideal cer­tainly, but an artist whose vi­sion tran­scended time and place. Gains­bor­ough’s art in this view is for all time. It does not need a con­text to be un­der­stood. The el­e­gant ro­man­ti­cism may re­tain its ap­peal in dif­fer­ent ages.

James Hamil­ton’s pur­pose, how­ever, is not pri­mar­ily to de­fend the art. His in­ten­tion is to por­tray fully Gains­bor­ough the man, not only at his easel but at home, at leisure and in so­ci­ety. We may be aware of his be­gin­nings in Suf­folk where his house at Sud­bury is a mu­seum well worth vis­it­ing. Then there is Bath, re­built in the ear­lier part of the eigh­teenth-cen­tury to at­tract fash­ion­able so­ci­ety. Gains­bor­ough’s Bath was the city of Sheri­dan and Smol­lett, as it was to be of many emi­nent men and women. The list is long. The art of Thomas Gains­bor­ough was sig­nif­i­cant in cre­at­ing the Som­er­set spa’s am­bi­tion to be an English equiv­a­lent to Ed­in­burgh as a cul­tural cap­i­tal.

It ought not to be a sur­prise to learn that this dy­namic artist was a volatile, some­what reck­less and spend­thrift char­ac­ter, gen­er­ous, charm­ing, and fiery. The re­straint and for­mal­ity of his art was not re­flected in his life. He had the man­ners of a lively man in love with his work and re­spect­ful of those who re­spected him. His por­traits are in­vari­ably sym­pa­thetic. He saw the best in peo­ple. He saw be­hind their for­mal­ity the gen­tler selves that

their eyes or their lips con­veyed as he painted them.

A por­trait, ex­cept of an out and out vil­lain, has to be in some mea­sure a defence of its sub­ject if it is to be true to its sub­ject. There is a nat­u­ral bias. That is the case with Gains­bor­ough’s art and also with James Hamil­ton’s por­trait in words. Hamil­ton clearly likes Gains­bor­ough. What is more im­por­tant, he un­der­stands Gains­bor­ough. An artist is de­pen­dent on pleas­ing oth­ers whether they are pa­trons or ad­mir­ers. Art must tran­scend its orig­i­nat­ing con­text whereas a life can be un­der­stood only in re­la­tion to its times. We can­not judge the past as if it were the present. Just as out­moded ideas were once rev­o­lu­tion­ary, the con­ven­tions of an­other age are wholly un­ac­cept­able now.

This is a ca­pa­ble bi­og­ra­phy, but the ques­tion is whether it suc­ceeds in re­veal­ing the in­ner spirit that in­formed and trans­formed Gains­bor­ough. The ac­count of the artist’s life is well told, striking an agree­able bal­ance be­tween the ca­sual and the au­thor­i­ta­tive. There is, how­ever, the ever-present danger of fail­ing to sat­isfy the con­nois­seur while be­ing too eru­dite for a gen­eral au­di­ence. This book is writ­ten to por­tray the artist be­hind the art. This re­quires not only knowl­edge but cred­i­ble per­cep­tion. James Hamil­ton may be said to hover per­pet­u­ally over a dis­cov­ery that is never fully re­vealed.

That said, there is a sense of gen­uine en­gage­ment. As an in­tro­duc­tion to Gains­bor­ough’s art it works well, plac­ing it in the con­text of its times and de­scrib­ing the cir­cum­stances in which Gains­bor­ough flour­ished. As a por­trait of the artist at work it reads very well. As an ex­plo­ration of the in­ner work­ings of the man it is less suc­cess­ful. There is some in­sight into the artist’s heart and mind, if not quite enough, but the reader who knows lit­tle of Gains­bor­ough will come away know­ing some­thing of sub­stance.

An in­tel­li­gent book, if flawed in its ex­e­cu­tion, it does stim­u­late a re­con­sid­er­a­tion of an artist who is of­ten dis­missed as an apol­o­gist for so­cial at­ti­tudes that no longer ap­ply. One con­clu­sion we can draw from Hamil­ton’s por­trait is that Gains­bor­ough was un­com­fort­able in the con­fines of the so­ci­ety of his times yet was able to suc­ceed within that so­ci­ety at its higher

lev­els, at first in Bath, then in Lon­don where he was equally well re­garded. He was not the heroic out­cast ac­cord­ing to the pop­u­lar no­tion we have of how an artist must be. On the other hand, he was not the hum­ble crafts­man sub­servient to his pa­trons’ whims. Gains­bor­ough dis­played great in­tegrity through­out his life.

This led him into a de­gree of con­flict. It is no sur­prise to learn of the un­easy re­la­tions with Reynolds, Gains­bor­ough’s great ri­val in fash­ion­able por­trai­ture. Reynolds’s work, while of great tech­ni­cal ac­com­plish­ment, lacks Gains­bor­ough’s spon­tane­ity and flu­id­ity. Its sense of con­trol re­flects Reynolds’s na­ture as a man and his pur­pose as an artist. He was de­ter­mined on se­cur­ing a per­sonal po­si­tion within so­ci­ety. It should be said, how­ever, that his mo­tive was not self­ish. Sir Joshua Reynolds sought to raise the so­cial po­si­tion of fine art to be equiv­a­lent in stature to law or medicine. To this end he es­tab­lished the Royal Acad­emy, the name in­di­cat­ing its am­bi­tion.

Gains­bor­ough was among the Acad­emy’s founders while re­main­ing a re­luc­tant mem­ber. He scarcely at­tended a meet­ing of coun­cil. Where Reynolds gave his superb dis­courses (which re­main in print), Gains­bor­ough asked noth­ing more of so­ci­ety than to ac­cept his art. The ten­sion be­tween the in­di­vid­ual artist’s vi­sion and the needs of so­ci­ety was to be­come the great con­cern of the Ro­man­tics. Sim­i­larly the land­scapes of Gains­bor­ough may be said to pre­dict some­thing of the ex­per­i­men­tal ab­strac­tion of Turner’s re­flec­tions on na­ture. That the Royal Acad­emy should ex­ist was to th­ese and other artists’ ben­e­fit. But an artist was be­com­ing a vi­sion­ary out­sider dis­tanced from the main­stream of so­ci­ety. It was Gains­bor­ough’s suc­cess­ful com­pro­mise to ex­e­cute com­mis­sions on his own terms.

His mer­cu­rial char­ac­ter worked to his ad­van­tage, ac­cord­ing to James Hamil­ton’s ac­count. It is in­ter­est­ing to learn that the de­pic­tion of Ig­natius San­cho, a for­mer slave who be­came an es­say­ist and wit, of great stand­ing was com­pleted in un­der two hours. It is a warm and hu­man por­trait con­vey­ing the re­mark­able qual­i­ties of this ex­cep­tional man. Gains­bor­ough gives us an im­pres­sion, like a snapshot, rather than a com­posed, of­fi­cial record. Gains­bor­ough’s San­cho is a liv­ing be­ing. We may glimpse him moving and even hear him.

The artist him­self is also re­flected. His out­stretched arm at the can­vas is al­most vis­i­ble. Read­ing the back­ground to the art brings Gains­bor­ough into the pic­ture. ‘El­e­gant, hand­some and un­pre­dictable’ is James Hamil­ton’s sum­mary of the man. It was the abil­ity to sur­prise and even to shock those about him which shaped the cre­ative im­pulse. His craft could dis­ci­pline a brief im­pulse into the last­ing achieve­ment of a por­trai­ture that con­tin­ues to en­chant and in­trigue. The deathbed rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Reynolds is poignant as a con­clu­sion to a life that was gov­erned by a hu­man­ity that sus­tains the sense of life in Gains­bor­ough’s ex­quis­ite art.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.