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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003) 564-570

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On the Road

Mark Hallett,
University of York, U.K.1


Gainsborough, Tate Britain, London (24 October 2002-19 January 2003); National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C. (9 February-11 May, 2003); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (9 June-14 September 2003). Catalogue ed. by Michael Rosenthal and Martin Myrone, with contributions by Rica Jones, Martin Postle, Diane Perkins, Christine Riding, and Louise Hayward (London: Tate Publishing, 2002). Pp. 296. 194 color and 60 black-and-white illus. £40.00 cloth; £29.99 paper.

In his foreword to the catalogue accompanying this stunning exhibition, Tate Britain' s director Stephen Deuchar notes that "this is the third Tate survey of the work of Thomas Gainsborough, successor to the 1953 and 1980 exhibitions." Given this admission, we might expect that yet another major exhibition on the artist would have few new stories to tell. Little could be further from the truth: this third Tate edition of Gainsborough offers a host of fresh perspectives on the painter and the visual culture to which he belonged, and is a triumph of scholarly collaboration and creative display.

Both the exhibition itself, and the thoughtful and suggestive catalogue edited by the show's curators Michael Rosenthal and Martin Myrone (not reviewed here), encourage us to focus on the artist's simultaneous engagement with two pictorial genres--portraiture and landscape painting--throughout his career. In terms of portraiture, the curators' choices make us newly aware of how Gainsborough skilfully adapted his works in response to shifts in demand and locale. Thus, in the first two sections of the exhibition, which deal with Gainsborough's early years as an artist, we are invited to compare the portraits he painted in Suffolk, where he was based from 1749, with those he produced in the fashionable centre of Bath, to which he moved in 1759. The exhibition, indeed, dramatizes a pretty remarkable shift in approach between the two periods, even as it reveals some interesting continuities. The portraits included from the earlier phase of Gainsborough's work all show figures disposed in a landscape setting, and overwhelmingly picture men, women, and children either engaged in, or looking up from, some kind of leisurely activity: gathering flowers, perusing a drawing, hunting, walking, or playing a cello. In the late 1750s, however, while the same interest in suggesting certain kinds of activity--and interruption--continues to be evident, we find that the subjects of his paintings are now regularly placed indoors. In an eloquently juxtaposed run of pictures on one wall of the Tate Britain exhibition, we saw a 1759 portrait of the Ipswich landowner William Wollaston, shown leaning back in a chair holding a flute in his hands; the celebrated 1760 picture of the Bath-based musician Ann Ford, depicted sitting with a viola da gamba leaning across her left arm; and a 1760-61 canvas of Uvedale Tomkyns Price, portrayed sitting with a drawing instrument in his right hand. All three are pictured at ease in elegantly furnished interiors. Intriguingly, each is also [End Page 564] defined in relation to a depicted fragment of paper: the first two have pages of sheet music at hand, while Price holds out one of his drawings to the viewer.

A number of observations can be made here. First of all, looking at these earlier and later portraits together suggests the extent to which, in the former period, Gainsborough and his patrons considered the idealized landscape as the most appropriate space into which the imagery of polite leisure could be projected, but that in the late 1750s, and coincident with his move to Bath, the domestic interior became a newly suitable arena for representing men and women engaged in, or pausing from, leisurely activity. Equally interesting, I think, is the fact that over this same period Gainsborough's portraiture is shown to have become characterized by an increasingly interactive and circular engagement between sitter, viewer, and artist. In the three later pictures in particular, the subjects of the portraits, ourselves as viewers, and Gainsborough as the portraitist, are all implied...


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