In a matter of months, he had plenty of sitters; in a matter of years, he was overwhelmed. Though a fast
worker, he couldn’t keep up with commissions, and much of his lively correspondence consists of apologies and excuses to impatient clients : “for you know, painting and punctuality mix like oil and vinegar.”
Visiting stately homes near Bath gave Gainsborough the chance to study the works of the great seventeenth century Dutch master, Van Dyck. As a result, he painted some superb portraits with his sitters dressed in Cavalier-style Van Dyck costume, including The Blue Boy, probably the young son of his friend, Thomas Buttall.
A master of the fleeting expression—the lift of an eyebrow, the ghost of a smile, the flare of a nostril–Gainsborough could reveal the private rather than the public face. He painted aristocrats, soldiers and squires; theatre folk like Garrick and Sheridan; statesmen like Clive and Pitt. His portraits of men were shrewd and sympathetic, masterly in their psychological acuteness, but most appealing of all were those inspired by lovely women. Captivated by their sensuous beauty, he cared not a fig whether they were society ladies like Mary Graham or Countess Howe, or fascinating demimondaines like the Italian dancer, Madame Bacelli.
By his late thirties, Gainsborough had become prosperous enough to take up residence in one of Bath’s most sumptuous five-storey stone houses, No. 17 The Circus. A jaunty figure in lace ruffles and a cocked hat, he began to send pictures to London exhibitions, and in 1768 was invited by the great Sir Joshua Reynolds to become a founder member of the Royal Academy, the new artistic institution supported by King George III. Increasingly, Gainsborough found it necessary to ride the three days to London to paint clients there; and in 1774, after 15 years in Bath, he decided to move permanently to the capital.
Now he was able to challenge Sir Joshua on his own ground. Reynolds was President of the Royal Academy, and principal painter to the King. But after Gainsborough’s stupendous success at the Academy with Mrs Graham, he began to come to royal notice. King George III and Queen Charlotte preferred his fresh, informal style to Reynolds’s grandiose manner, and commissioned many works, including a series of 15 portraits of the whole royal family, designed to be hung together as a group.
As a member of the Royal Academy, Gainsborough found himself frequently at odds with the governing council, and with Sir Joshua. Most of the disputes were about the hanging of Gainsborough’s works. Full-length portraits were customarily hung “above the line,” then five and a half feet from the floor. At such a height, the painter protested furiously, the subtleties of his colouring and, brush-work could not be appreciated.
The final storm, in 1784, involved a delicate picture of three royal princesses; Gainsborough swore that if it were not properly hung, he would leave the Academy. The council was adamant and from then onwards the ever-popular Gains-borough exhibited his works only on the walls of his own home, Schomberg House in Pall Mall.
The painter was saddened by family worries during the London years, especially by the growing mental derangement of both his beloved daughters; his marriage, too, was far from the joyous idyll it had been in Suffolk days. There is an added depth of feeling in the pictures he painted at this time, notably the National Gallery’s lovely double portrait of a recently married couple, Mr and Mrs Hallet, in The Morning Walk. The pair of pensive newlyweds strolling in the countryside have a fragile, tremulous air which seems to express all the transience of human happiness.
He found comfort in the warm friendships with which his life was filled, and invented a novel way of amusing evening callers. First, he contrived a method of painting with transparent paints on small glass panels about a foot square; then he devised a wooden peep-show box in which the panels were illuminated from behind by the light of three
candles, diffused through a silk screen. Rather like a modern host, Gainsborough would show slide after slide to his delighted guests—depicting a moonlit landscape, or lamplight glimmering from a cottage window. The peep-show box, and 12 of Gainsborough’s glass paintings, can still be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In 1788, when Gainsborough was 61, he felt a swelling on his neck which later proved to be cancer. Realizing he had not long to live, he wrote and asked Sir Joshua Reynolds to come to his sick-bed. At last, after decades of business rivalry and strained relations, the two great artists — so diverse in talent and life-style were reconciled. Gains-borough died on August 2, 1788; a few months later Reynolds told his Academy students that should there ever be an English School of Painting, Gainsborough’s name must surely be among its leaders.
A generation later, Constable summed up the fresh and tender qualities of Gainsborough’s paintings. “The stillness of noon, the depths of twilight, and the dews and pearls of the morning, are all to be found on the canvases of this most benevolent and kind-hearted man. On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes …”