Portraits from outer space

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of Caroline Conolly, Countess of Buckinghamshire, 1784, at Blickling Hall. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of Caroline Conolly, Countess of Buckinghamshire, 1784, at Blickling Hall. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

We have been having a discussion about the relative merits of Arthur Devis and Thomas Gainsborough. I love the little details in Devis’s portraits, but I can also see that Gainsborough lifted British portraiture onto an altogether different plane.

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, 1784, at Blickling Hall. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, 1784, at Blickling Hall. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Gainsborough’s portraits zoom in on the sitters’ appearance, glamourising them in the manner of today’s media personalities. Gainsborough’s foregrounding of a person’s ‘aura’ contributes to the characteristic vividness and brilliance of his portraits.

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of a lady, possibly Elizabeth White, Mrs Hartley, c.1786-7, at Ascott. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of a lady, possibly Elizabeth White, Mrs Hartley, c.1786-7, at Ascott. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

However, it seems to me that in some ways Gainsborough’s pictures are – paradoxically – less realistic than Devis’s more muted portrayals.

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of the Hon Thomas Needham, 1768, at Ascott. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of the Hon Thomas Needham, 1768, at Ascott. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Gainsborough’s settings are often very effective in hinting at the sitter’s role, personality or achievements, but they do that by being very theatrical. Pillar = grandeur and permanence. Pike = military hero. Anchor = naval prowess. Devis’s hints of domestic life have been replaced by emblematic props and backdrops.

Thomas Gainsborough and another hand, portrait of Susanna 'Suky' Trevelyan, Mrs John Hudson, 1761, at Wallington. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Gainsborough and another hand, portrait of Susanna ‘Suky’ Trevelyan, Mrs John Hudson, 1761, at Wallington. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

The way the sitters are dressed, and their body language, is again often rather theatrical. They appear like beautifully dressed and charismatically posed actors on a stage.

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of Commodore the Hon. Augustus Hervey, later Vice-Admiral and 3rd Earl of Bristol, 1767-8, at Ickworth. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

In their glamorous artifice Gainsborough’s portraits remind me of film posters or trailers.

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of Louisa Barbarina Mansel, Lady Vernon, 1763-7, at Sudbury Hall. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of Louisa Barbarina Mansel, Lady Vernon, 1763-7, at Sudbury Hall. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

All this makes his pictures at once very present and very distant. Gainsborough people seem a bit like beautiful aliens who have just arrived from outer space, surveying the assembled earthlings with gentle surprise and benign disdain.

10 Responses to “Portraits from outer space”

  1. Lex van Haart Says:

    *nods in agreement*
    Devis’s portraits are in a league of their own, perhaps even an acquired taste? Gainsborough is exactly what you say, and definitely more popular.
    There was (is?) a popular blog that even had a sort of feuilleton with ‘Guess that Gainsborough’ (or something like that), where a detail of a Gainsborough was posted and the readers had to guess which portrait it was.

  2. Lex van Haart Says:

    By the way, is it me or are the Buckinghamshires looking a bit – what’s the word, sapless? I do think Gainsborough took his time with his sketching, you seem to have selected the very portraits where the sitters appear to be bored stiff. And wasn’t there something about the Trevelyan portrait?

  3. Toby Worthington Says:

    I don’t know about ‘outer space’, but Suky Trevelyan could easily have stepped out of the pages of Vogue or Harpers Bazaar, styled by Mrs Vreeland and snapped by Richard Avedon. But you are spot on in pointing out the differences between Gainsborough’s idealised approach versus Devis’s straightforward plain. Yet even he, Devis, took liberties with the depiction of room arrangements,
    if I am not mistaken. Artistic license of another kind, I suppose…

  4. Andrew Says:

    OK, so Gainsborough’s portraits are idealised, and they include contrived symbolic cues, but at least they look like different people!

    Devis seems to given everyone peculiar lengthened limbs and fingers, oval faces, prominent noses, big heavy-lidded almond eyes. The compositions are just as archly arranged – the lady sitting in her billowing skirts with her needlework and trinkets on the mantelpiece; the gentleman in his rich silks standing cross-legged, leaning awkwardly on a fashionable chair, with his little book and classical statuette nearby; the young man with his fishing rod and tiny fish (nothing so obvious as a pike or anchor) with a view of the house in the background; the lady with her spinning wheel on a groundsheet in the garden(!), trying to work out which bit goes where; and so on.

  5. Andrew Says:

    Hmm. Perhaps it was just the examples you presented, Emile; I don’t know Devis’s other work. Here are a few that I would rate much higher:
    * http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sir_Roger_Newdigate_in_the_Library_at_Arbury_Arthur_Devis.jpg
    * http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Manners-Sutton_(1722-1772)_by_Arthur_Devis.jpg
    * http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arthur_Holdsworth_Conversing_with_Thomas_Taylor_and_Captain_Stancombe_by_the_River_Dart,_by_Arthur_Devis,_1757,_oil_on_canvas,_view_1_-_National_Gallery_of_Art,_Washington_-_DSC00034.JPG

    But Gainsborough he ain’t.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Lex, perhaps what you are sensing is the projection of aristocratic languor, which van Dyck captured so well and which has been a component of British portraiture ever since?

    Yes the portrait of ‘Suky’ was extensively overpainted, removing a hat, a necklace and a dog. According to Trevelyan family tradition this was done by Sir Joshua Reynolds on a visit to Wallington in 1777, but this has not been absolutely confirmed by documentary or material evidence (see http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/584337).

    Toby, I like your vision of ‘Suky’ as a Vreeland/Avedon fashion model – her nickname has a sixties ring, too :) And yes I agree: lots of artifice in Devis too, just slightly different kinds of artifice compared to Gainsborough.

    Andrew, thanks for those interesting comparisons. I think we can all agree on how different Devis and Gainsborough are. But your examples I think also show how Gainsborough in his early years did portraits reminiscent of Devis (e.g. Mr & Mrs Andrews) and then developed it in a different way.

  7. Deana@lostpastremembered Says:

    The John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire portrait looks unfinished to me and the ermine tails poorly done. That said, the personality of the subjects is rendered in such a masterful way. Thanks for sharing these with us… now to check on Devis!

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Deana, Gainsborough did have a rather feathery style, so it may be that. Horace Walpole described the 2nd Earl when young, in his usual bitchily amusing way, as ‘the clearcake; fat, fair, sweet and seen through in a moment.’

  9. columnist Says:

    I do love Gainsborough’s portraits, (especially Mr & Mrs Andrews for example), and these do not disappoint in the least. I think your description “out of space” is completely spot on; there is something ethereal about his work, which is most enchanting, (to me anyway).

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes and his sitters seem to have like it too. Power and wealth expressed in an ethereal way – what could be more elegant? :)

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