Story type: Essay
If ever this nation should produce a genius sufficient to acquire to us the honorable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in this history of art, among the very first of that rising name.
—Sir Joshua Reynolds
Most biographies are written with intent either to make the man a demigod or else to damn him as a rogue who has hoodwinked the world. Of the first-mentioned class, Weems’ “Life of Washington” must ever stand as the true type. The author is so fearful that he will not think well of his subject that he conceals every attribute of our common humanity, and gives us a being almost devoid of eyes, ears, organs, dimensions, passions. Next to Weems, in point of literary atrocity, comes John S. C. Abbott, whose life of Napoleon is a splendid concealment of the man.
Of those who have written biographies for the sake of belittling their subject, John Gait’s “Life of Byron” occupies a conspicuous position. But for books written for the double purpose of downing the subject and elevating the author, Philip Thicknesse’s “Life of Gainsborough” must stand first. The book is so bad that it is interesting, and so stupid that it will never die. Thicknesse had a quarrel with Gainsborough, and three-fourths of the volume is given up to a minute recital of “says he” and “says I.” It is really only an extended pamphlet written by an arch-bore with intent to get even with his man.
The writer regards his petty affairs as of prime importance to the world, and he shows with great care, and not a single flash of wit, how all of Thomas Gainsborough’s success in life was brought about by Thicknesse. And then, behold! after Thicknesse had made the man by hand, all he received for pay was ingratitude and insolence! Thicknesse was always good, kind, unselfish and disinterested; while Gainsborough was ungrateful, procrastinating, absurd and malicious– this according to Thicknesse, who was on the spot and knew. Well, I guess so!
Brock-Arnold describes Thicknesse as “a fussy, ostentatious, irrepressible busybody, without the faintest conception of delicacy or modesty, who seems to think he has a heaven-born right to patronize Gainsborough, and to take charge of his affairs.”
The aristocratic and pompous Thicknesse presented the painter to his friends, and also gave much advice about how he should conduct himself. He also loaned him a fiddle and presented him a viola da gamba, and often invited him to dinner. For these favors Gainsborough promised to paint a portrait of Thicknesse, but never got beyond washing in the background. During ten years he made thirty-seven excuses for not doing the work, and as for Mrs. Gainsborough, she once had the temerity to hand the redoubtable Thicknesse his cocked hat and cane and show him the door. From this, Thicknesse is emboldened to make certain remarks about Mrs. Gainsborough’s pedigree, and to suggest that if Thomas Gainsborough had married a different woman he might have been a different painter. Thicknesse, throughout the book, thrusts himself into the breach and poses as the Injured One.
On reading “the work” it is hard to believe it was written in sober, serious earnest–it contains such an intolerable deal of Thicknesse and so little of Gainsborough. The Mother Gamp flavor is upon every page. Andrew Lang might have written it to show the literary style of a disgruntled dead author.
And the curious part is that, up to Eighteen Hundred Twenty-nine, Thicknesse held the stage, and many people took his portrait of Gainsborough as authentic. In that year Allan Cunningham put the great painter in his proper light, and thanks to the minute researches of Fulcher and others, we know the man as though he had lived yesterday.
The father of Gainsborough was a tradesman of acute instincts. He resided at Sudbury, in Suffolk, seventy miles from London. It was a time when every thrifty merchant lived over his place of business, so as to be on hand when buyers came; to ward off robbers; and to sweep the sidewalk, making all tidy before breakfast. Gainsborough pere was fairly prosperous, but not prosperous enough to support any of his nine children in idleness. They all worked, took a Saturday night “tub,” and went to the Independent Church in decent attire on Sunday.
Thomas Gainsborough was the youngest of the brood, the pet of his parents, and the pride of his big sisters, who had nursed him and brought him up in the way he should go. In babyhood he wasn’t so very strong; but love and freedom gradually did their perfect work, and he evolved into a tall, handsome youth of gracious manner and pleasing countenance. All the family were sure that Tom was going to be “somebody.”
The eldest boy, John, known to the town as “Scheming Jack,” had invented a cuckoo-clock, and this led to a self-rocking cradle that wound up with a strong spring; next he made a flying-machine; and so clever was he that he painted signs that swung on hinges, and in several instances essayed to put a picture of the prosperous owner on the sign.
The second son, Humphrey, was a brilliant fellow, too. He made the model of a steam-engine and showed it to a man by the name of Watt, who was greatly interested in it; and when Watt afterward took out a patent on it, Humphrey’s heart was nearly broken, and it might have been quite, but he said he had in hand half a dozen things worth more than the steam-engine. As tangible proof of his power, he won a prize of fifty pounds from the London Society for the Encouragement of Art, for a mill that was to be turned by the tides of the sea. The steam-engine would require fuel, but this tide-engine would be turned by Nature at her own expense. In the British Museum is a sundial made by Humphrey Gainsborough, and it must stand to his credit that he made the original fireproof safe. From a fireproof safe to liberal theology is but a step, and Humphrey Gainsborough became a Dissenting Clergyman, passing rich on forty pounds a year.
The hopes of the family finally centered on Thomas. He had assisted his brother John at the sign-painting, and had done several creditable little things in drawing ‘scutcheons on coach-doors for the gentry. Besides all this, once, while sketching in his father’s orchard, a face cautiously appeared above the stone wall and for a single moment studied the situation. The boy caught the features on his palette, and transferred them to his picture. The likeness was so perfect that it led to the execution of the thief who had been robbing the orchard, and also the execution of that famous picture, finished many years after, known as “Tom Peartree.”
The orchard episode pleased the Gainsboroughs greatly. A family council was held, and it was voted that Thomas must be sent to London to study art. The girls gave up a dress apiece, the mother retrimmed her summer bonnet for the Winter, the boys contributed, and there came a day when Tom was duly ticketed and placed on top of the great coach bound for London. Good-bys were waved until only a cloud of dust was seen in the distance.
Gainsborough went to “Saint Martin’s Drawing Academy” at London, and the boys educated him. The art at the “Academy” seems to have been very much akin to the art of the Writing Academies of America, where learned bucolic professors used to teach us the mysteries of the Spencerian System for a modest stipend. The humiliation of never knowing “how to hold your pen” did much to send many budding geniuses off on a tangent after grasshopper chirography, but those who endured unto the end acquired the “wrist movement.” They all wrote alike. That is to say, they all wrote like the professor, who wrote just like all Spencerian professors. So write the girls in Melvil Dewey’s Academy for Librarians, at Albany–God bless them all!–they all write like Dewey.
Thomas Gainsborough at London seems to have haunted the theaters and coffeehouses, and whenever there were pictures displayed, there was Thomas to be found. To help out the expense-account, he worked at engraving and made designs for a silversmith. The strong, receptive nature of the boy showed itself, for he succeeded in getting a goodly hold on the art of engraving, in a very short time. He absorbed in the mass.
But he tired of the town–he wanted freedom, fresh air, the woods and fields. Hogarth and Wilson were there in London, but the Academy students never heard of them. And if Gainsborough ever listened to Richardson’s famous prophecy which inspired Hogarth and Reynolds, to the effect that England would soon produce a great school of art, we do not know it.
The young man grew homesick; he was doing nothing in London–no career was open to him–he returned to Sudbury after an absence of nearly two years. He thought it was defeat, but his family welcomed him as a conquering hero. He was eighteen and looked twenty–tall, strong, fair-haired, gentle in manner, gracious in speech.
Two of his sisters had married clergymen, and were happily situated in neighboring towns; his brother Humphrey was “occupying the pulpit,” and causing certain local High Churchmen to have dreams of things tumbling about their ears.
The sisters and mother wanted Tom to be a preacher, too–he was so straight and handsome and fine, and his eyes were so tender and blue!
But he preferred to paint. He painted in the woods and fields, by streams and old mills, and got on good terms with all the flocks of sheep and cattle in the neighborhood.
The art of landscape-painting developed from an accident. The early Italian painters used landscape only as a background for figures. All they pictured were men, women and children, and to bring these out rightly they introduced scenery. Imagine a theater with scenes set and no person on the stage, and you get the idea of landscape up to the time of Gainsborough. Landscape! it was nothing–a blank.
Wilson first painted landscapes as backgrounds for other men to draw portraits upon. A marine scene was made merely that a Commodore might stand in cocked hat, a spyglass under his arm, in the foreground, while the sun peeps over the horizon begging permission to come up. Gradually these incomplete pictures were seen hanging in shop-windows, but for them there was no market. They were merely curios.
Gainsborough drew pictures of the landscape because he loved it. He seems to be the first English artist who loved the country for its own sake. Old bridges, winding roadways, gnarled oaks, cattle grazing, and all the manifold beauties of quiet country life fascinated him. He educated the collector, and educated the people into a closer observation and study of Nature. Gainsborough stood at the crossways of progress and pointed the way.
With Hogarth’s idea that a picture should teach a lesson and have a moral, he had no sympathy. And with Reynolds, who thought there was nothing worth picturing but the human face, he took issue. Beauty to him was its own excuse for being. However, in all of Gainsborough’s landscapes you find the human interest somewhere–man has not been entirely left out. But from being the one important thing, he sinks simply into a part of the view that lies before you. Turner’s maxim, “You can not leave man out,” he annexed from Gainsborough. And Corot’s landscapes, where the dim, shadowy lovers sit on the bankside under the great oaks–the most lovely pictures ever painted by the hand of man–reveal the extreme evolution from a time when the lovers occupied the center of the stage, and the landscape was only an accessory.
And it is further interesting to note that the originator of English landscape-painting was also a great portrait-painter, and yet he dared paint portraits with absolutely no scenery back of them–a thing which up to that time was done only by a man who hadn’t the ability to paint landscape. Thus do we prove Rabelais’ proposition, “The man who has a well-filled strongbox can surely afford to go ragged.”
Thomas Gainsborough, aged nineteen, was one day intently sketching in a wood near Sudbury, when the branches suddenly parted and out into a little open space stepped Margaret Burr. This young woman had taken up her abode in Sudbury during the time the young man was in London, and he had never met her, although he had probably heard her praises sounded. Everybody around there had heard of her. She was the handsomest woman in all Suffolk–and knew it. She lived with her “uncle,” and the gossips, who looked after these little things, divided as to whether she was the daughter of one of the exiled Stuarts, or the natural child of the Duke of Bedford. Anyway, she was a true princess, in face, form and bearing, and had an income of her own of two hundred pounds a year. Her pride was a thing so potent that the rustic swains were chilled at the sight of her, and the numerous suitors sighed and shot their lovesick glances from a safe distance.
Let that pass: the branches parted and Margaret stepped out into the open. She thought she was alone, when all at once her eyes looked full into the eyes of the young artist–not a hundred feet away. She was startled; she blushed, stammered and tried to apologize for the intrusion. Her splendid self-possession had failed her for once–she was going to flee by the way she had come. “Hold that position, please–stand just as you are!” called the artist in a tone of authority.
Even the proudest of women are willing to accept orders when the time is ripe; and I am fully convinced that to be domineered over by the right man is a thing all good women warmly desire.
Margaret Burr, the proud beauty, stood stock-still, and Thomas Gainsborough admitted her into his landscape and his heart.
This is not a love-story, or we might begin here and extend our booklet into a volume. Suffice it to say that within a few short months after their first meeting the young woman, being of royal blood, exercised her divine right and “proposed.” She proposed just as Queen Victoria did later. And then they were married–both under twenty–and lived happily ever after.
It is a great mistake to assume that pride and a high degree of commonsense can not go together. Margaret knew how to manage. After a short stay in Sudbury the couple rented a cottage at Ipswich for six pounds a year–a dovecot with three rooms. The proud beauty would not let the place be profaned by a servant: she did all the work herself; and if she wanted help, she called on her husband. Base is the man who will not fetch and carry for the woman he loves. They were accounted the handsomest and most distinguished couple in all Sudbury; and when they attended church, there was so much craning of necks and so many muffled exclamations of admiration, that the clergyman made it a point not to begin the service until they were safely seated.
They were very happy: they loved each other, and so loved life and everything and everybody, and God’s great green out-o’-doors was their playhouse. Margaret’s income was quite sufficient for their needs, and mad ambition passed them by. Gainsborough drew pictures and painted and sketched, and then gave his pictures away.
Music was his passion, and whenever at the concerts held round about there the player did exceptionally well, Gainsborough would proffer a picture in exchange for the instrument used. In this way the odd corners of their house got filled with violins, lutes, hautboys, kettledrums and curious stringed things that have died the death and are now extinct. At this time, if any one had asked Gainsborough his profession, he would have said, “I am a musician.”
Fifteen years had slipped into the eternity that lies behind–“years not lost, for we can turn the hourglass and live them all over in sweet memory,” once said Gainsborough to his wife. The constant sketching had developed much skill in the artist’s hand. Thicknesse had come puffing alongside, and insisted out of pure friendliness on taking the artist and wife in tow. They laughed at him behind his back, and carried on conversation over his head, and dropped jokes at his feet by looks and pantomime, and communicated in cipher–for true lovers always evolve a code.
Thicknesse was sincere and serious, and surely was not wholly bad– even Mephisto is not bad all of the time. Mrs. Gainsborough once said she would prefer Mephisto to Thicknesse, because Mephisto had a sense of humor. Very often they naturally referred to Thicknesse as “Thickhead”–the joke was too obvious to let pass entirely, until each “took the pledge,” witnessed by Gainsborough’s favorite terrier, “Fox.”
Thicknesse had a Summer House at Bath, and thither he insisted his friends should go. He would vouch for them and introduce them into the best society. He would even introduce them to Beau Nash, “the King of Bath,” and arrange to have Gainsborough do himself the honor of painting the “King’s” picture. Two daughters nearing womanhood reminded Mr. and Mrs. Gainsborough that an increase in income would be well; and Thicknesse promised many commissions from his friends, the gentry.
The cheapest house they could find in Bath was fifty pounds a year. “Do you want to go to jail?” asked Mrs. Gainsborough of her husband when he proposed signing the lease. The worldly Thicknesse proposed that they should take this house at fifty pounds a year, or else take another at one hundred fifty at his expense. They decided to risk it at the rate of fifty pounds a year for a few months, and were duly settled.
Thicknesse was very proud of his art connections. He had but one theme–Gainsborough! People of note began to find their way to the studio of the painter-man in the Circus.
Gainsborough was gracious, handsome and healthy–fresh from the country. He met all nobility on a frank equality–God had made him a gentleman. His beautiful wife, now in her early thirties, was much sought in local society circles.
Everybody of note who came to Bath visited Gainsborough’s studio.
Garrick sat to him and played such pranks with his countenance that each time the artist looked up from his easel he saw a new man. “You have everybody’s face but your own,” said Gainsborough to Garrick, and dismissing the man he completed the picture from memory. This portrait and also pictures of General Honeywood, the Comedian Quin, Lady Grosvenor, the Duke of Argyle, besides several landscapes, were sent up to the Academy Exhibition at London.
George the Third saw them and sent word down that he wished Gainsborough lived in London, so he could sit to him.
The carrier, Wiltshire, who packed the pictures and took them up to London, had a passion for art that filled his heart, and he refused to accept gold, that base and common drudge ‘twixt man and man, for his services in an art way. And so Gainsborough presented him with a picture. In fact, during the term of years that Gainsborough lived at Bath, he gave Wiltshire, the modest driver of an express-cart, a dozen or more pictures and sketches. He gave him the finest picture he ever painted: that portrait of the old Parish Clerk. Gainsborough was not so good a judge of his own work as Wiltshire was. Wiltshire kept all the “Gainsboroughs” he could get, reveled in them during his long life, basked and bathed his soul in their beauty, and dying, bequeathed them to his children.
Had Wiltshire been moved by nothing but keen, cold, worldly wisdom– which he wasn’t–he could not have done better. Even friendship, love and beauty have their Rialto–the appraiser footed up the Wiltshire estate at more than fifty thousand pounds.
Gainsborough found himself with more work than he could very well care for, so he raised his prices for a “half-length” from five pounds to forty; and for a “full-length” from ten pounds to one hundred, in order to limit the number of his patrons. It doubled them. His promised picture of Thicknesse was relegated behind the door, and a check was sent the great man for five hundred pounds for his borrowed viola da gamba and other favors.
But Thicknesse was not to be bought off. He took charge of the studio, looked after the visitors, explaining this and that, telling how he had discovered the artist and rescued him from obscurity, giving scraps of his history, and presenting little impromptu lectures on art as he had found it.
The fussy Thicknesse used to be funny to Mr. and Mrs. Gainsborough, but now he had developed into a nuisance. To escape him, they resolved to turn the pretty compliment of King George into a genuine request. They packed up and moved to London.
The fifty pounds a year at Bath had seemed a great responsibility, but when Gainsborough took Schomberg House in Pall Mall at three hundred pounds, he boasts of his bargain. About this time “Scheming Jack” turns up asking for a small loan to perfect a promising scheme. The gracious brother replies that although his own expenses are more than a thousand pounds a year, he is glad to accommodate him, and hopes the scheme will prosper–which of course he knew it would not, for success is a matter of red corpuscle.
Almost immediately on reaching London the Royal Academy recognized Gainsborough’s presence by electing him a member of its Council. However, he never attended a single meeting. He did not need the Academy. Royalty stood in line at his studio-doors, and he took his pick of sitters. He painted five different portraits of the King, various pictures of his children, did the rascally heir-apparent ideally, and made a picture of Queen Charlotte that Goldsmith said “looked like a sensible woman.”
He painted portraits of his lovely wife, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Burke, Walpole, the dictator of Strawberry Hill, and immortalized the hats worn by the smashing, dashing Duchess of Devonshire. One of these pictures of Her Grace comes very close to us Americans, as it was cut from the frame one dark, foggy night in London, sealed up in the false bottom of a trunk and brought to New York. Here it lay for more than twenty years, when Colonel Patricius Sheedy, connoisseur and critic, arranged for its delivery to the heirs of the original owners on payment of some such trifle as twenty-five thousand dollars. This superb picture, with its romantic past, was not destined to traverse the Atlantic again; for thanks to the generosity of J. Pierpont Morgan, it has now found a permanent home at Harvard College.
It is only a little way back from civilization to savagery. We live in a wonderful time: the last twenty-five years have seen changes that mark epochs in the onward and upward march. To mention but two, we might name the almost complete evolution of our definition as to what constitutes “Christianity”; and in material things, the use of electricity, which has worked such a revolution as even Jules Verne never conjured forth.
Americans are somewhat given to calling our country “The Land of the Free”–as if there were no other. But the individual in England today has greater freedom of speech and action than the individual has in America. In every large city of America there is an extent of petty officialism and dictation that the English people would not for a day endure. Our policemen, following their Donnybrook proclivities, are all armed with clubs, and allowing prenatal influences to lead, they unlimber the motto, “Wherever you see a head, hit it,” on slight excuse. In Central Park, New York, for instance, the citizen who “talks back” would speedily be clubbed into silence–but try that thing in Hyde Park, London, if you please, and see what would follow! But, thank heaven, we are working out our salvation all the time–things are getting better, and it is the “dissatisfied” who are making them go. Were we satisfied, there would be no progress. During the sixty-one years of Gainsborough’s life, wondrous changes were made in the world of thought and feeling. And the good natured but sturdy quality of such as he was the one strong factor that worked for freedom. Gainsborough was never a tuft-hunter: he toadied to no man, and his swinging independence refused to see any special difference between himself and the sleek, titled nobility. He asked no favors of the Academy, no quarter from his rivals, no grants from royalty. This dissenting attitude probably cost him the mate of the knighthood which went to Sir Joshua, but behold the paradox! he was usually closer to the throne than those who lay in wait for honors. Gainsborough sought for nothing–he did his work, preserved the right mental attitude, and all good things came to him.
It is a curious thing to note that while England was undergoing a renaissance of art, and realizing a burst of freedom, Italy, that land so long prolific in greatness, produced not a single artist who rose above the dull and commonplace. Has Nature only just so much genius at her disposal?
The reign of the Georges worked a blessed, bloodless revolution for the people of England. They reigned better than they knew. Gainsborough saw the power of the monarch transferred to the people, and the King become the wooden figurehead of the ship, instead of its Captain. So, thanks to the weakness of George the Third and the short-sighted policy of Lord North, America achieved her independence about the same time that England did hers.
Theological freedom and political freedom go hand in hand, for our conception of Deity is always a pale reflection of our chief ruler. Did not Thackeray say that the people of England regarded Jehovah as an infinite George the Fourth?
Gainsborough saw Whitefield and Wesley entreating that we should go to God direct; Howard was letting the sunshine into dark cells; Clarkson, Sharp and Wilberforce had begun their crusade against slavery, and their arms and arguments were to be transferred a hundred years later to William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Henry Ward Beecher, who bought “Beecher Bibles” for Old John Brown, Osawatomie Brown, whose body, no longer needed, was hanged on a sour-apple tree while his soul goes marching on.
In the realm of letters, Gainsborough saw changes occur no less important than in the political field. Samuel Johnson bowled into view, scolding and challenging the Ensconced Smug; Goldsmith scaled the Richardson ghetto and wrote his touching and deathless verse; Fielding’s saffron comedies were produced at Drury Lane; Cowper, nearly the same age as the artist, did his work and lapsed into imbecility, surviving him sixteen years; Richardson became the happy father of the English Novel; Sterne took his Sentimental Journey; Chatterton, the meteor, flashed across the literary sky; Gray mused in the churchyard and laid his head upon the lap of earth; Burns was promoted from the Excise to be the idol of all Scotland. The year that Gainsborough died, Napoleon, a slim slip of a youth seventeen years old, was serving as a sub-lieutenant of artillery; while Wellington had just received his first commission and was marching zigzag, by the right oblique, to meet him eighteen miles from Brussels on the night of a ball sung into immortality by Byron; Watt had invented the steam-engine, thanks to Humphrey Gainsborough; Arkwright had made his first spinning-frame; Humphrey Davy was working at problems (with partial success) to be solved later by Edison of Menlo Park; Lord Hastings was tried, and it was while listening to the speech of Sheridan–the one speech of his life, the best words of which, according to his butler, were, “My Lords, I am done”–that Gainsborough caught his death o’ cold.
Gainsborough never went abroad to study; he painted things at home, and painted as he saw them. He never imagined he was a great artist, so took no thought as to the future of his work. He set so little store on his pictures that he did not think even to sign them. The masterpiece that satisfied him was never done.
His was a happy life of work and love, with no cloud to obscure the sun, save possibly now and then a bumptious reproof from Sir Thicknesse or the occasional high-handed haughtiness of a Hanging Committee. Thus passed his life in work, music, laughter and love; but to music he ever turned for rest. He made more money than all of his seven brothers and sisters combined, five times over, and divided with them without stint. He educated several of his nieces and nephews, and one nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, he adopted and helped make an acceptable artist.
Of that peculiarly-to-be-dreaded malady, artistic jealousy, Gainsborough had not a trace. His failure to court Sir Joshua’s smile led foolish folks to say he was jealous–not so! he was simply able to get along without Sir Joshua, and he did. Yet he admired Reynolds’ works and admired the man, but was too wise to force any close personal relationship.
He divided with West, the American, the favor of the Court, and with Romney and Reynolds the favor of the town. He got his share, and more, of all those things which the world counts worth while. The gratitude of his heart was expressed by his life–generous, kind, joyous–never cast down except when he thought he had spoken harshly or acted unwisely-loyal to his friends, forgetting his enemies.
He did a deathless work, for it is a work upon which other men have built. He prepared the way for those who were to come after.
It is a great privilege to live, to work, to feel, to endure, to know: to realize that one is the instrument of Deity–being used by the Maker to work out His inscrutable purposes; to see vast changes occur in the social fabric and to know that men stop, pause and consider: to comprehend that this world is a different place because you have lived. Yes, it is a great privilege to live! Gainsborough lived–he reveled in life, and filled his days to their brim, ever and always grateful to the Unknown that had guided his hand and led him forth upon his way.
It is a great privilege to live!