Gainsborough portrait found forgotten on cathedral wall
Life-size painting found in Hereford was believed to have been work of master’s nephew and apprentice
A PAINTING by Thomas Gainsborough has been discovered in a cathedral, after hanging forgotten for years in a dark corner without anyone realising its provenance.
The hand of one of Britain’s foremost 18th-century masters has been identified in a life-size portrait that had been relegated to a wall within the verger’s vestry at Hereford Cathedral.
The Cathedral had believed that it was by Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew and sole apprentice.
But Hugh Belsey, a world authority on Gainsborough, will be publishing it for the first time in the catalogue raisonné – the definitive study – of Gainsborough’s portraits and copies of Old Master works, to be published by Yale University Press next month.
“It’s an impressive picture,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “It should be considered quite highly. It shows his characteristic handling of brushwork, so liquid and descriptive. It now sits immediately above the verger’s office, high on the wall, and no one pays any attention to it at all… I saw it as best I could because it’s really very difficult to see.”
He dates it to around 1770. The sitter is the Rev Isaac Donnithorne. Ordained in 1735, he later inherited wealthy family estates in Cornwall, including tin mining that employed 250 people at Polberra and produced huge annual profits of £35,000.
“That is seriously shedloads,” Belsey said, noting that Gainsborough – as a fashionable portrait painter of his day – could command fees of up to £120 for a full-length portrait.
Donnithorne is depicted in the portrait as both clergyman and business- man. Mr Belsey said that Hereford’s picture was Donnithorne’s official portrait intended for a “quasi-public body”. A more loosely-painted version, probably produced for the sitter, is in Falmouth Art Gallery.
His catalogue raisonné will feature around 1,100 Gainsborough paintings. The last definitive study, published in 1958, was by Prof Sir Ellis Waterhouse, a former director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham.
Waterhouse believed that the Hereford picture was by Gainsborough Dupont, who was apprenticed to his uncle between 1772 and 1788, and painted in his style. Several paintings have been wrongly attributed to him. Mr Belsey said: “Waterhouse was very loath to have two portraits by Gainsborough of the same sitter in the same pose. I’ve always considered that it was easy money for Gainsborough to paint two portraits, and there are other examples.”
In his catalogue raisonné, he writes that the brushwork has none of Dupont’s “nervous pretension”. The two-volume study, titled Thomas Gainsborough: The Portraits, Fancy Pictures and Copies after Old Masters, will be published on Feb 26.
Mr Belsey said: “We probably know most of the famous pictures, but one or two have got away for whatever reason. Therefore it gives you a complete picture of his complete activity.”
Hereford Cathedral, whose stately nave dates from the 12th century, boasts the Mappa Mundi, the medieval European map of the world and one of Britain’s finest treasures.
The Very Rev Michael Tavinor, Dean of Hereford, said: “This painting, over the years, has been displayed in many places due to its impressive size and enjoyed by many. We are delighted to now receive the news that it is considered to be painted by Thomas Gainsborough, having always believed that, due to the name plate, it was created by his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont.” the university, said the clock was ticking to ensure they did not “turn into dust” as it was “vital that we can bring the trees to another generation”.
She said: “We want to try to freeze them in time. They are degrading every year. When they were first found in the box, I was quite surprised that they were available to researchers to come and handle them as they wish.”
The university is consulting specialists at Kew Gardens.
Previously unpublished images show clippings from the trees planted by Lady Constance Lytton and Annie Kenney in April 1909 and Christabel Pankhurst’s planted in November 1910.
They been in the archives since 1994, after they were donated to the university by the family of Kenney, after whom the plantation was named.
Fiona Sinclair, the writer in residence, said: “These were women who, at the point the trees were planted, were outlaws.
“The trees are their legacy. They are a sign, I think, that they knew they were on the right side of history.”
Tim Pryse-Davies, the dean’s verger at Hereford Cathedral, inspects Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the Rev Isaac Donnithorne A clipping from a tree planted by suffragette Annie Kenney in April 1909 at Annie’s Arboretum, which hosted figureheads of the movement after they had served prison sentences. It was found in archives at the University of East Anglia