Archive for the ‘Gainsborough, Thomas’ Category

Portraits from outer space

February 6, 2014
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 Devis’s hints of domestic life have been replaced by emblematic props and backdrops.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.