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

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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

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