In this unfinished painting, Gainsborough explored for the first time the subject of gypsies or peasants gathered round a camp fire. While the subject of gypsies had precedents in seventeenth-century Dutch, Flemish and Italian art, Gainsborough appears to have been the first British painter to have explored the theme in depth and made it the focus of at least three paintings.
While it is sometimes uncertain whether such figures are peasants relaxing and eating in the open air or true gypsies, living a nomadic outdoor life, the evidence (provided by Gainsborough’s title of the later engraving of the subject) suggests that the figures here are gypsies. Eighteenth-century social attitudes towards gypsies (as found in the literature of the period) were that they were a rather sinister yet nevertheless fascinating underclass.
The motif of figures around a fire had appeared in Gainsborough’s Wooded Landscape with Mounted Peasant on a Country Track (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) of around the same date, although the group is placed in the middle-distance amongst dark woodland foliage. Here, the group of gypsies forms the focus of the composition in what is the first of Gainsborough’s landscapes in which figures of any kind predominate. They are gathered under a large oak tree, with a family beside a heavily laden donkey close to the tree, with three further figures sitting around a cooking pot. They are shown in a state of repose, smoking pipes and warming themselves around a comforting fire, in anticipation of a hot meal.
The picture is believed to date from around 1753-4 and to have been commissioned by a gentleman in Ipswich. According to a story cited by Walter Thornbury in his Life of J.M. W. Turner, R.A. (1862, II, pp.59-60), Gainsborough slashed the canvas in a temper when the client claimed he did not like it. Two slashes across the picture are detectable, so the story may well be true. The picture was subsequently rescued by, or given to, Gainsborough’s friend, Joshua Kirby (1716-74) who had it repaired.
The composition is centred around the dominant tree, and only this detail and the figure group have been worked up to any degree of finish. Much of the foreground and left-hand side have simply been blocked out in dead colour (or underpaint) and have been left unfinished. The tree and group of gypsies are centrally placed in this horizontal composition, but Gainsborough’s next painting on the theme, The Gypsies, c.1758, was a vertical arrangement, with a more complex grouping of figures. This more elaborate restatement of the subject was once owned by Thomas William, 1st Earl of Lichfeld (1795-1854), although its present whereabouts are unknown. A version, believed by most scholars to be a copy of the lost original, was sold at Sotheby’s July 4 2001 (lot 70). The Lichfeld painting was the basis for Gainsborough’s famous print The Gypsies. For this project, possibly proposed by Joshua Kirby, Gainsborough executed his own outline etchings in around 1758, and the plate was then passed to the professional engraver Joseph Wood for completion. The publication was announced in an advertisement in the Public Advertiser of 14 October 1758 and was subsequently published as a pair with Richard Wilson’s Lake Nemi, in March 1759.
The Gypsies was the first print to be published commercially after one of Gainsborough’s paintings. The fact that the publication coincided with Gainsborough’s recent arrival in fashionable Bath is significant. At a time when he would have been intent on establishing his reputation, the choice of The Gypsies surely indicates the subject’s importance for him, as one that he was proud to have stand as a testament to his abilities in landscape painting.
The artist’s final treatment of the theme was in Gypsy Encampment, Sunset (Tate N05803), c.1778-80. While this was clearly derived from these earlier explorations, the emphasis was more on the landscape and atmospheric light than on the activities of the lively figures, as seen here.
Ellis Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, no. 864
John Hayes, The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols, 1982, p. 477, no.122, reproduced
Susan Sloman, Gainsborough in Bath, 2002, pp.141-5
Martin Postle, Thomas Gainsborough, 2002, p.31, reproduced
Michael Rosenthal and Martin Myrone eds., Gainsborough, Tate exhibition catalogue, 2002, p.31, reproduced fig.23, p.32