Thomas Gainsborough 1727–1788
Purchased from Mr Philip McQueen (Grant-in-Aid) 1971.
T01423 Wooded Landscape with Country Cart and Figures
Writing-engraving (in reverse): ‘Designed & Engraved by Thos. Gainsborough. Pubd.as the Act directs Augt. 1st. 1797, by J. & J. Boydell, N? 90, Cheapside; & at the Shakspeare Gallery, Pall Mall.’ Engraved number ‘4’ (in reverse) t.r.
Copper-plate, 11 x 13¾ (28 x 34.9).
Twenty-two original prints by Gainsborough are recorded, two of which are known from description only. The twenty-two comprise three early etchings and nineteen works of the 1770’s and 1780’s. With the exception of one mezzotint, the latter are executed in aquatint or soft-ground etching or a combination of the two. They include some of the artist’s most brilliant and inventive productions. T01422–T01432 are the original copper-plates of eleven of these later prints.
The first known English aquatint is P.P.Burdett’s ‘Brigands threatening Usher- folk’, after J.H.Mortimer, which is signed and dated 1771. This or another aquatint (possibly both) was exhibited at the Society of Artists the following year. 1771 is also the date on the first recorded soft-ground etchings in this country: Benjamin Green’s ‘Arundel Church’ and his study of a head after Bossi (which is dated 25 December 1771). By 1775 Paul Sandby was using both the new techniques and Gainsborough was probably equally quick to adopt them. As Dr Hayes says, ‘anything relating to techniques or materials was a source of immediate excitement’ to him (Gainsborough as Print maker, p.1). However, the only firm date for his use of either method is provided by the writing-engraving on impressions of three of the soft-ground etchings (Hayes, nos.9-11) in the Huntington Art Gallery, which reads ‘Publish’d as the Act directs, Feb’y, 1st .1780,’ followed by an indecipherable word or words. No other impressions with this publication line are known and it is unlikely that the prints were actually published. In the absence of further direct evidence, Dr Hayes has dated Gainsborough’s later prints by stylistic comparison with the drawings and paintings. His dating has generally been followed here and the reader is referred to Gainsborough as Printmaker for the supporting arguments.
Where dating is concerned, another piece of evidence is also worth considering. Three of the copper-plates arc stamped with the name of the makers, Guerre on T01425 and Jones & Pontifex on T01426 and T01429. No information about Guerre has come to light but a certain amount can be discovered about Jones & Pontifex from the Pontifex family records (kindly made available by Mr W.L. Pontifex). William Pontifex (1766–1851) was apprenticed to Richard Jones, coppersmith of 48 Shoe Lane, in October 1780. Jones died in September 1788 and Pontifex acquired the business, which in the meantime had moved to 47 Shoe Lane. In a typescript history of the family written in 1926, E.L.Pontifex quoted an apparently autobiographical account of William Pontifex, dated 1804, which stated that ‘after a faithful and laborious servitude and at the death of Richard Jones [Pontifex] agreed Jan. 1st 1789 to take the business and allow the widow Mary Jones £80 per year for the first seven years and £40 per year during her life…’ This seems to imply that there was no partnership between Jones and Pontifex and that the business passed from the one to the other. The only directory reference to the firm which has been found before Jones’ death is in Pendred’s The London and Country Printers, Booksellers and Stationers Vade Mecum of 1785, which was compiled in 1784–5. In this Jones appears at 47 Shoe Lane but Pontifex is not mentioned. The business seems to have been called Jones and Pontifex only after Richard Jones’ death. In Mr W.L. Pontifex’s possession is a deposition by Mary Jones dated 8 July 1791 in which she states that she is not Pontifex’s partner but authorises him to use her name in consideration of an annuity from him. After Mary Jones’ death in 1793 the name of Jones disappeared from the firm’s title, as, for example, in Lowndes’ A London Directory of 1794, where William Pontifex appears by himself at 47 Shoe Lane.
From this it might seem that copper-plates stamped ‘Jones & Pontifex’ could only have been made after 1789, the year after Gainsborough’s death. This is very puzzling. If only the mezzotint plate, T01429, were in question one might incline to re-attribute this one, technically unique, work to Gainsborough’s nephew Dupont, who had begun producing mezzotints from his uncle’s portraits in 1779 and was therefore familiar with the process. Dr Hayes admits that Dupont may possibly have helped with this plate (Gainsborough as Print maker, p.18). But T01426 also carries a Jones and Pontifex mark and there seems no other reason to doubt that this plate is by Gainsborough himself. Further information about Jones and Pontifex may resolve the problem.
The three impressions in the Huntington Art Gallery which were mentioned above show that Gainsborough was contemplating publication of at least some of his prints. Why they never in fact appeared is a mystery, though a study of the contemporary market for prints and drawings might cast some light on the question. In 1797 John Boydell published 12 of the prints, including 9 of the 11 under discussion. His publication line was added to the plates themselves where they had sufficient margin and in these cases a series number was also engraved in the margin. Where there was insufficient margin a separate slip-plate was used for the writing- engraving and the number was engraved within the work area. Boydell’s edition does not appear to have sold well, judging by the comparative rarity today of impressions from it. Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, wrote to Boydell’s manager Harrison in 1802 to say that she was sending the copper-plates to Christie’s for auction and that the stock of prints from them was to be returned to her (Gainsborough as Print maker, p.26). As Iain Bain points out, the edition had presumably been printed on commission from Margaret Gainsborough. Boydell does not appear to have publicised it to any great degree, the only known advertisement being one in the Monthly Magazine in June 1798. No record has been found of the sale of the plates at Christie’s or anywhere else and they were most likely sold privately, being acquired then or later by the McQueen firm of plate-printers.
In 1971–72 Philip McQueen, who represents the fifth generation of his family in the trade, printed an edition of 75 sets of the 11 subjects and 6 sets hors de commerce. These were published by Iain Bain at the John Boydell Press, and the copper-plates then entered the Tate Gallery’s collection. The edition was printed on specially watermarked ‘Penshurst’ paper made by J.Barcham Green Ltd, at Hayle Mill, Maidstone. Details of the set acquired by the Gallery at the same time as the copperplates are as follows. The size given is of the work area excluding any writing- engraving, i.e. the image area. ‘Hayes’ numbers refer to John Hayes’ Gainsborough as Printmaker.
Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.