Not The Humble Craftsman
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.