The Mail on Sunday - Event - - ART -

Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Lon­don Un­til Feb 3

Though Thomas Gains­bor­ough has gone down in his­tory as one of this na­tion’s great­est painters, he strug­gled to make ends meet. He longed to ded­i­cate him­self to land­scapes, yet in the 18th cen­tury proper money was only to be made from paint­ing por­traits of the well-to-do.

Gains­bor­ough’s ser­vices were highly sought-af­ter, yet he re­ferred to por­trai­ture as a ‘curs’d… busi­ness’, marked by the ‘hurry of one fool on the back of an­other’ wish­ing to be com­mem­o­rated on can­vas. All of which makes this ex­hi­bi­tion, Gains­bor­ough’s Fam­ily Al­bum, so fas­ci­nat­ing. It fea­tures 50 por­traits he did of his own fam­ily – the artist’s par­ents, sib­lings, wife, chil­dren and pet dogs Tris­tram and Fox, all fea­tur­ing.

How to ex­plain so many pic- tures, cre­ated in his spare time, in a genre Gains­bor­ough so dis­liked? Well, the an­swer is he painted these for love, not money.

The six por­traits of his daugh­ters, Mary and Mar­garet, to­gether – across their child­hood – are the show’s high­light. They man­age to be ten­der but never cloy­ing. In The Pain­ter’s Daugh­ters Chas­ing A But­ter­fly, wise old Mary (aged six) holds back im­petu­ous young Mar­garet (aged five) from grab­bing at a but­ter­fly on a this­tle bush – and prick­ing her hand in the process.

Gains­bor­ough wasn’t one for white­wash­ing when rel­a­tives had vices, ei­ther. His older brother John – a money­len­der, de­picted with di­shev­elled hair and five o’clock shadow – more than lives up to his nick­name, ‘Schem­ing Jack’.

The brush­work is in­vig­o­rat­ingly loose at ev­ery turn, re­flect­ing the fact that these were per­sonal pieces, not pa­trons’ com­mis­sions that de­manded a per­fect fin­ish.

Christ­mas is for the fam­ily, they say – and my ad­vice, this fes­tive sea­son, is def­i­nitely to spend a cou­ple of hours with Gains­bor­ough’s.

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