Gainsborough: a Portrait
by James Hamilton, Weidenfeld, £25
Thomas Gainsborough, it seems, could be a lot of fun. He enjoyed a drink, was loyal to his friends, unless they pressed their luck too far, and his banter with those who sat for his portraits usually went down well.
Yes, as James Hamilton concedes in this outstanding biography, Gainsborough was a “single-minded opportunist”, but he was a country lad who had known the “cold breath of poverty”, so we can hardly blame him for wanting to make a bob or two. Besides, he always took care of his family.
Gainsborough was also volatile, capable of slashing a canvas when things didn’t go his way, and rather contemptuous of the artistic establishment – he fell out with the Royal Academy on more than one occasion. Just as well, then, that he was a genius with the brush, and Hamilton analyses many of the great man’s works with a rare blend of vim and scholarly rigour.
We should not look, Hamilton says, for radicalism, great philosophical depth or much in the way of social commentary in Gainsborough’s work. The skill, flow and intricacy are more than enough to be getting on with. Hamilton takes us, in refreshingly straightforward narrative fashion, through Gainsborough’s life: from Suffolk to London, back to Suffolk, on to Bath, and to the capital once more.
Along the way we encounter a dynamic portrayal of 18th-century English culture, with all sorts of fascinating characters (Hogarth, Garrick and the rest of the gang) making their entrances. We follow the development of Gainsborough’s style and technique: the early, formal portraits with their “doll-like figures” blossoming into something greater and more relaxed; the detailed early landscapes turning into nostalgic dreamlands.
I’ll be honest: I’ve never had much time for Gainsborough. But prodded by this glittering study, now I’ll look again. A “personality that courted chaos”, Hamilton writes, made Gainsborough a little like “Jerry Lee Lewis with a paintbrush” but “with a talent that drew out divine expression, he touches Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”. Sounds like the sort of painter we should all revisit.
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