In this late landscape Gainsborough returns to a theme he had first adopted in the mid-1750s, that of gypsies or peasants gathered round a camp fire. While the subject of gypsies had precedents in seventeenth-century European art, Gainsborough appears to have been the first British painter to have explored the theme in depth and made it the central focus of at least three paintings.
His first attempt was the unfinished canvas, Landscape with Gypsies (Tate N05845), believed to date from around 1753-4 and to have been commissioned by a gentleman in Ipswich. Gainsborough apparently slashed the canvas in a temper when the client claimed he did not like it. The tree and group of gypsies are centrally placed in that early horizontal composition, but Gainsborough’s next experiment on the theme, The Gypsies, c.1758, was a vertical arrangement, with a more dominant oak tree and complex grouping of figures. This painting, the present whereabouts of which are unknown, was used as the basis for Gainsborough’s famous print of The Gypsies. This was the first print to be published commercially after one of Gainsborough’s paintings and indicates the significance the subject must have held for him. (For further information regarding the print, see the short text for Gainsborough N05845).
The present painting of a gypsy encampment seen in twilight, from late in Gainsborough’s career, is clearly derived from his earlier explorations of the theme. It is perhaps surprising that there was such a long gap before his return to a subject that had clearly held a fascination for him in the 1750s. However, this later composition is quite different in its arrangement from the earlier ones. The group of gypsies gathered around the camp fire under dark trees is far less prominent and the overall focus of the scene is on the rich colouring and atmospheric light, rather than on the activities on the figures.
The gypsy group consists of far more people than previously, although they are similarly shown in a state of repose, smoking pipes and gathered around their homely cooking pot. The artist's fascination with dramatic lighting effects is apparent in his skilful treatment of the smoking fire which casts a rich red glow on the surrounding figures. The heavily laden donkey beside them is a motif borrowed from the earlier unfinished painting. A zig-zagging path separates the larger mass of woodland from a smaller balancing group of trees on the right, leading the eye to the distant church tower on the horizon, imbued with silvery evening light.
A sketch for this composition, in chalks on blue paper (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA), is close to the final design. Gainsborough’s main alterations from the drawing were to enlarge the main figure group, which became less integrated with the dominant tree and to elaborate the foreground reeds and log. However, there are still signs in the finished oil that the composition was not entirely satisfactorily resolved, particularly the relationship between the scale of the two trees on the right.
The early provenance of the painting is not certain, but if this was the picture sold in 1808, as is generally thought, it had a companion, ‘Cattle watering in a Woody Landscape with Figures – a charming Pastoral’, from which it was later separated. This seems possible, since pure landscape compositions of this kind often went in pairs, one representing the bright light of morning, the other the darker, richer tonality of the evening.
Ellis Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, no. 936, repr. pl. 132
John Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 1970, pp. 209-10
John Hayes, The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols, 1982, p.477, no. 122, reproduced
Susan Sloman, Gainsborough in Bath, 2002, pp.193-196, repr. fig 169