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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhbition review: Gainsborough's Family Album

    Eighteenth century artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) is renowned for his portraits of the English Aristocracy dressed in fine silks, ribbons and ruffles. His modern-day equivalent would be someone like photographer Mario Testino. Gainsborough is often reviled by art critics for pandering to the elite. But throughout his career he also painted portraits of his relatives and these engaging pictures are featured in ‘Gainsborough Family Album’ at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition includes all 12 portraits that he painted of his daughters, never before displayed together. We learn that Gainsborough’s quest for status and reputation was driven by a concern to secure their future wellbeing.

    This medium sized exhibition consisting of over fifty works with explanatory labels begins with his painting ‘The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter (1748). Back then it was unusual to find pictures of members of an ‘ordinary’ family. This was reserved for royalty and the upper classes. Gainsborough challenged that notion. Here he combines his passion for landscape painting and portraiture. He pays particular attention to the depiction of his wife Margaret’s dress, in terms of the sheen and billowy folds of blue silk fabric (his father owned a clothing business before he was bankrupted). Gainsborough represents himself as a noble person, instead of a provincial painter from Sudbury, Suffolk. His social aspirations are obvious.

    Gainsborough moved his family to fashionable Bath (using his wife’s annuity of £200, she was the illegitimate child of a Duke) to improve his prospects in the more lucrative business of portrait painting, competing with Joshua Reynolds. He rented a house in the heart of town, where he would paint Bath’s high society. On display is a self portrait alongside a picture of his wife which were both positioned near the entrance to this house. He appears looking like a gentlemen in this plain depiction while Mrs Gainsborough’s picture highlights her powdered complexion and lace collared costume. More importantly, the portraits were good likenesses to promote his talents to clientele.

    In truth, he didn’t like painting his patron’s portraits (a ‘curs’d face business’). He enjoyed painting his family members much more in his spare time, when he could experiment with new techniques, practice and even add a personal dimension to his work. His whimsical painting ‘the Artist's daughters, Chasing a Butterfly’ (1756) points at the fleeting nature of life. There’s a sense of movement here. Little Margaret seems to be running forward, nearly falling out of the picture frame, followed warily by Mary. It’s unfinished like many of his family pictures.

    Another unfinished portrait, a close up of the two girls shows one of them playfully pulling the other’s hair (1760-61) emphasizing their closeness. The picture has a contemporary feel, with its cropped perspective, photographic accuracy and emotional honesty. Chances are the picture was rushed off because he had paid work to do. It wasn’t supposed to be displayed in public.

    These works are one of the exhibition’s highlights. Perhaps they could have been arranged in a larger space although the flow does seem to improve by the time one reaches a portrait of his older brother John entitled ‘Scheming Jack’. This is an unforgiving depiction. John Gainsborough (Jack) seems to have hit hard times. His hair is messy, his eyes rimmed with red and he looks scrawny and defeated. He was an unsuccessful businessman, always borrowing money from Gainsborough.

    In the next room is a superb, well lit and spaced out display consisting of various-sized portraits of Gainsborough’s wife, daughters including a recently discovered picture of his daughter Margaret, now grown up and playing a lute, and even his pet dogs. There is a picture of his 'shrewd' sister Sarah Dupont, a milliner, affectionately referred to by him as Sally. She is wearing an elaborate headdress with an air of nobility. His rustic, head and shoulders depiction of her husband Philip Dupont, a carpenter wearing a dowdy waistcoat, stands in contrast to her glamorous portrait. Gainsborough is having a joke at his sister and brother-in-law’s expense perhaps?

    This is a traditional exhibition which won’t exactly challenge its viewers much. But Gainsborough’s emotional connection to his relatives is undeniable, giving the portraits a timeless dimension. The assembly of all of them in the one place brings to mind a lively family gathering.

    Throughout his life he also did his best to control his reputation, his family and his legacy, but his wife and daughters were a driving force. He initially wanted his daughters to take up painting as a career, later on for them to marry into high society. A striking full length double portrait of a grown up Mary and Margaret (1774), painted with his characteristic feathery brushstokes, portrays them as elegant noblewomen dressed in lavish silk dresses. This was painted at the peak of his career in London.

    But, despite his aspirations, their future didn’t go to plan. His own career was cut short due to illness. In a letter on display written to Joshua Reynolds he mentions his regret at being unable to reach his full potential. The exhibition might have been a humdrum affair but Gainsborough’s own story is intriguing and touched with poignancy.

    1. ‘The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary (1748)

    2. Mary & Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters, Chasing a Butterfly(1756)


    Ends 3 February


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