Jacqueline Riding enjoys a clutch of exhibitions that explore the artist’s life and work through the prism of his home and youth, family, friends and theatrical circle
The monographic survey, a staple of our modern exhibiting culture, is an opportunity for the curator and visitor to explore an artist’s life, career and output in one magnificent, immersive hit. The scale and complexity of the endeavour—not least securing musthave iconic loans—means that such shows are a once-ina-generation event.
Given that the last such UK show devoted to Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) was in 2002, one senses that the time is ripe for this generation’s blockbuster.
In the meantime, the artist is having a moment, with simultaneous exhibitions staged at three key locations: Sudbury, his birthplace; Bath, where he moved in 1759; and London, where he established a home cum studio/gallery in the 1770s and where he died.
The exhibition has aroused a perception of parental love and tenderness
For the intrepid exhibitiongoer, this offers a different sort of immersion, a journey through urban and rural england with the destination—whether city, town or, in the case of Sudbury, building—as much part of the experience as the art itself.
The theme at the holburne Museum is the artist’s lifelong association with theatre. It begins with Bath’s Theatre Royal and Gainsborough’s friendships with the metropolitan actor James Quin, who had retired here, and local lad Thomas Linley, of the famed musical family, and ends with the Covent Garden Theatre and two portraits of the castrato Guisto Tenducci, the Italian opera star.
en route, we are reacquainted with such luminaries of the english stage as the luxuriantly dressed Mrs Siddons and Mary Robinson (‘Perdita’)—the latter depicted in a gorgeous oil sketch lent by the Royal Collection— as well as introduced to some less familiar theatre folk.
Within the London section, which includes the King's Theatre, haymarket, a short stride from Gainsborough’s Pall Mall residence, the portrait of lawyer and playwright George Colman has great vibrancy and deftness of handling. Likewise, that of ‘Auguste’ Vestris, a dancing prodigal of the Paris Opéra, is a gem.
Adding context are a witty sketch of Vestris in exuberant action by Nathaniel Dance and Michael Angelo Rooker’s intriguing watercolour of a scene
painter in his studio dwarfed by various mechanical contraptions.
David Garrick, the colossus of the 18th-century theatre, was painted by most of the leading artists of the day and, as with Gainsborough’s, these portraits highlight the mutual promotion that actor and artist engaged in.
Rarely in repose, Garrick was not an easy subject for a straightforward portrait and was thus usually depicted in character, whether king or jester. ‘It was as impossible to catch his likeness as it is to catch the form of a passing cloud,’ Gainsborough declared, but, here, he succeeded brilliantly and the twinkly-eyed actor, paused in his reading, holds the viewer in a gaze that is at once gentle and restless.
Fine art is also a form of performance and, for two decades, Gainsborough’s canvasses were a major attraction at the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition, the ‘Great Spectacle’. This is one theme of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Gainsborough’s Family Album’, although the focus of the show is the artist’s depictions of himself and his immediate and extended family—the latter encompassing friendship and social relations.
The paintings range across the artist’s entire career, from very early works displaying inevitably more promise than skill, to the bravura mid and late portraits.
The images of Gainsborough’s daughters, particularly those of Mary and Margaret as children, have elicited some very striking emotional responses from both reviewers and the public. Admittedly, this is, in part, invited by the intimate, homely title, but the exhibition seems to have aroused a genuine and universal perception of parental, even marital, love and tenderness that is at odds with the tone of the curatorial commentaries, which include some rather po-faced and sometimes mean-spirited descriptions, particularly of the artist’s wife.
That aside, some of Gainsborough’s most ravishing portraits have been assembled to investigate an unusual theme, one that would be worthy of being explored in relation to other artists’ work.
Among them, displayed in wonderful sequence, is the halflength of the adult Mary, her sister playing the cittern (recently ‘discovered’ with the help of Country Life (Town & Country,
December 5) and the mesmerising, melancholic Mrs Margaret Gainsborough, which are worth the entrance fee alone. ‘Gainsborough & the Theatre’ is at the Holburne Museum, Great Pulteney Street, Bath, until January 20 (01225 388569; www.holburne.org) ‘Gainsborough’s Family Album’ is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2, until February 3 (020– 7306 0055; www.npg.org.uk) ‘Gainsborough & the Theatre’ by Hugh Belsey and Susan Sloman is published by Philip Wilson (£15.95); ‘Gainsborough’s Family Album’ by David H. Solkin, Ann Bermingham and Susan Sloman is published by the National Portrait Gallery (£29.95); ‘Early Gainsborough: From the obscurity of a Country Town’ by Mark Bills and Rica Jones is published by Gainsborough’s House (£14.99)
Next week Assyrian treasures at the British Museum
Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters, at their Drawing (about 1763–64)
Portrait of the Artist with his Wife and Daughter (about 1748)
Catching his likeness was like catching ‘the form of a passing cloud’: the actor David Garrick