Beginnings: The Early Years

From Philip Thicknesse’s A Sketch of the Life and Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, Esq.(London 1788)

This was the first biography of Gainsborough, published immediately after his death in 1788. Thicknesse first met the painter in the early 1750s. In the passage below, he recalls visiting Gainsborough’s studio around that time.

Mr Gainsborough received me in his painting room, in which stood several portraits truly drawn, perfectly like, but stiffly painted, and worse coloured; among which was the late Admiral Vernon’s, for it was not many years after he had taken Porto Bello, with six ships only, but when I turned my eyes to his little landscapes and drawings, I was charmed, those were the works of fancy and gave him infinite delight; MADAM NATURE, not MAN, was then his only study, and he seemed intimately acquainted with that BEAUTIFUL OLD LADY.

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Sensibility

From the anonymous book Yorick’s Skull (London 1778)

The cult of sensibility encouraged a real concern for animal welfare. But this could equally become just a fashionable affectation. Here it is taken to comical extremes, with the narrator empathising with the sufferings of a squashed earthworm.

I was squeezing, under my right foot, half the body of a small worm. The poor insect, by the writhing of it’s body, must have been in incredible agony. It’s slender form was twisted into every position which might seem possible to deliver it from the weight of so destructive but innocent an oppressor! - I caught my foot hastily up.

From Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling (1771)

Mackenzie’s novel adhered closely to the ideals of sensibility, taking them to such extremes that it is now thought that the intention must have been satirical. In the incident covered in this chapter, the narrator, Harley, visits a prostitute, but only to lament her misfortunes. He is eventually duped out of his watch and money.

He offered to call a chair, saying, that he hoped a little rest would relieve her. - He had one half-guinea left: ‘I am sorry’, he said, ‘that at present I should be able to make you an offer of no more than this paltry sum.’ She burst into tears ! ‘Your generosity, Sir, is abused; to bestow it on me is to take it from the virtuous: I have no title but misery to plead; misery of my own procuring.’ ‘No more of that, answered Harley; there is virtue in these tears; let the fruit of them be virtue’.’

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Landscape and the Poor

From Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770)

Oliver Goldsmith’s poem was the most widely-read literary work to address the changing nature of the rural economy. It tells of the impact of agricultural modernisation on the village of ‘Auburn’. In the lines highlighted here, Goldsmith laments the way rural people seemed to be losing their freedom.

For Goldsmith and many others, this loss of freedom was seen as the result of two processes - ‘enclosure’ and ‘engrossing’. With enclosure, open lands previously used by everyone were taken into private ownership. Engrossing involved swallowing up small plots of land to make big farms. Many complained that as a result the rural poor who had lived independent lives were forced to work for profit-hungry landowners.

A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained its man;
For him light labor spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more:
His best companions, innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.

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Ideal and Experimental Art: The Later Years

From The Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1788

The Gentleman’s Magazine was a popular monthly periodical containing essays, news and obituaries of prominent public figures. It is a sign of Gainsborough’s considerable status that his obituary was four pages long. This passage shows its author was particularly sensitive to the technical subtleties of Gainsborough’s portraits.

He gives the feature and the shadow, so that it is sometimes not easy to say which is which; for the scumbling about the feature sometimes looks like the feature itself; so that he shews the face in more points of view than one; and by that means it strikes every one who has once seen the original with being a resemblance: so that while the portrait with a rigid outline exhibits the countenance only in one disposition of mind, he gives it in many. His portraits are calculated to give effect at a distance; and that effect is produced in so eminent a degree, that the picture may almost be mistaken for the original: but closely inspected, we wonder at the delusion and find scumbling scratches that have no appearance of eye-brows or nostrils.

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