It is hard to find an artist whose reputation is more varied than Thomas Gainsborough's. Shortly after his death one of his portraits sold for just one guinea and in 1922 The Blue Boy sold for more than any other painting. The price was £148,000.
Furthermore, Gainsborough did not restrict himself to portraits: he was the only British eighteenth-century portraitist who painted landscapes with such originality and skill, and the only contemporary painter that outshone his reputation was the wilily Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was resourceful too, and after moving from provincial Suffolk to cosmopolitan Bath, Gainsborough was able to respond to the change in his clientele with a dramatic transformation in his style.
The works by Gainsborough and Reynolds that were included in the famous 'Manchester Art Treasures' exhibition in 1857 revised attitudes to Gainsborough's work and his paintings rose to equal the reputation of Reynolds' – by 1880, Gainsborough's reputation had outflanked even his rival. He was especially admired for his lively portraits of young beautiful women, the best of which were bought by collectors such as the Rothschild family and Lord Iveagh.
The taste for Gainsborough straddled the Atlantic, where robber barons such as Henry Clay Frick and Henry Edwards Huntington bought exceptional examples in the early twentieth century. Gainsborough's link with female beauty encouraged advertisers to use his name to promote ladies' cigarettes, cosmetics including powder compacts and even a 'Gainsborough Genuine Hair Net: The Net of the Life-like Lustre'. This patina makes Gainsborough's artistic character particularly difficult to define.
250 years after Gainsborough painted his last picture, art historians have to pick up the pieces to recreate his artistic personality
Arguably Gainsborough was blessed with more natural ability than any of his contemporaries in Britain. He had a yearning curiosity that was only satisfied by a constant sketching, by which he was able to understand the way trees grew, the way dappled light illuminated a copse or the way a pathway delineated the recession in a landscape. He regarded drawing as an extension of seeing, and through the act of drawing his images became a part of his visual memory which he could use to draw on in details in his paintings. This direct approach was unlike the rhetoric of Reynolds, who intended to give his sitters status with the metaphors of the Olympian gods.
Gainsborough's disinterest in social status is perhaps best served in the portrait of Lord Aylesford, who wished to be portrayed in peers robes and Gainsborough erroneously included a Garter collar – which the sitter had no business to wear. The error was corrected and the collar was painted out. Explaining his approach to portraiture, Gainsborough wrote in a letter to Lord Dartmouth that, 'likenesses [were] the principal beauty & intention of a portrait', a statement that seems so obvious in the age of the selfie that it hardly needs repeating. In the bombastic world of eighteenth-century portraiture, however, it challenged many of his fellow artists. His art was consequently truthful, straightforward and emotionally charged.
It was so personal that Gainsborough's response to his sitters is often very transparent and when sitter and portraitist are of one mind the effect is electric, even effervescent, as we can see in the portrait of William Wollaston at Ipswich or in the lively portrait of Reverend Wadham Pigott at Weston-super-Mare.
Gainsborough's style of painting relies on his certainty of eye and his faultless draughtsmanship. He is able to create the most complex shapes by turning and rolling his brush across the canvas to create forms that are sometimes abstracted, though they fully express the shape of a detail in a figure or a plant.
Consequently, complex forms such as the shirt ruffles worn by Lord Bagot in the portrait in Birmingham, or the figures in the early landscape in Edinburgh, are created with a minimum of effort and a breathtaking certainty.
Necessity must have encouraged him to develop this skill. Unlike his rivals, he rarely employed assistants and with over 1,300 paintings attributed to him, he had to complete his work quickly. There is a record that he finished the portrait of Samuel Linley, who was just about to leave his family for the navy, in only 90 minutes. Such facility and confidence is rare in any artist's work.
250 years after Gainsborough painted his last picture, art historians have to pick up the pieces to recreate his artistic personality and, while there are frequent references in eighteenth-century newspapers about the artist's work as well as a handful of manuscript receipts, few works bear signatures and run-of-the-mill portraits and early works are rarely documented. In many cases, it is only the paintings themselves (and photographs of those that are no longer accessible) that provide the evidence of authorship.
As you look at more and more examples of an artist's work, his or her style comes into focus and you begin to recognise a very individual approach. Discovering a new painting by him is as certain as recognising your mother's handwriting. Dealing with paintings that are in bad condition makes the task of attribution more difficult and if you are writing a catalogue raisonné there is no place to hide – the objective is to decide what is and, more to the point, what is not from the master's hand. There are some images that have been overpainted. Portraits are sometimes given updated costumes: the portrait of Mrs Kilderbee at Ipswich was first painted in about 1758, but 20 years later the sitter was given a new hairstyle and new clothes to comply with current fashion.
Understandably American dealers wanted to make their stock appeal to their clientele and in order to do so, older women were sometimes given a facelift. An example is the canvas of Lady Tracy who was transformed into a younger woman by removing her multiple chins. The portrait has now been restored to its original appearance.
Portraits painted in feigned ovals were extended over the blank spandrels of the rectangular canvas and presented in elaborate twentieth-century frames (the portraits of the Swinburne brothers in the Detroit Institute of Arts have been altered in this way). In addition, there are later copies of Gainsborough's work that have in the past been accepted as autograph and a decision has to be made as to whether they are wheat or chaff. A catalogue raisonné is a snapshot and a vision of one individual's understanding of an artist's output. It is also a line in the sand about which others can disagree.
Hugh Belsey, independent scholar, curator, writer, broadcaster and lecturer, and former curator of Gainsborough's House in Sudbury
Hugh is the author of the 2019 two-volume catalogue raisonné Thomas Gainsborough: The Portraits, Fancy Pictures and Copies after Old Masters, published by Yale University Press
Editor's note: Hugh's extensive work on the new Gainsborough catalogue raisonné has led to revisions of some artwork titles (for example, the second image in this article is of Mary Cobbold and her granddaughter Sarah, not her daughter Anne). We are working with the collections to amend the titles on Art UK to reflect the most up-to-date scholarship. In the meantime, some of the older titles may appear on the site.