- Thomas Gainsborough 1727–1788
- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 2508 x 2273 mm
frame: 2705 x 2475 x 95 mm
- Bequeathed by Alexander Baillie 1868
Thomas Gainsborough 1727–1788
The Baillie Family
Oil paint on canvas
2508 x 2273 mm
Bequeathed by Alexander Baillie 1857; accessioned 1868
Presumably painted for James Baillie (1737–1793), London and Ealing Grove Middlesex; his eldest son Alexander Baillie (1777–1855), Naples and London; bequeathed by him to the National Gallery, subject to the life interest of his brother Evan Hamilton Baillie (d.1857), London; retained after his death in 1857 by his nephew, Matthew James Higgins (1810–1868), London; received by the National Gallery 1868; transferred to Tate Gallery in 1951.
This large, life-size family portrait shows the Scottish merchant James Baillie of Ealing Grove, Middlesex, and London, with his wife and four children, grouped beside a fluted column and curtain before a lush woodland landscape. All wear contemporary, fashionable costume, except the standing boy, whose clothes are in a seventeenth-century ‘Van Dyck’ style. The classical column and heavy red curtain are traditional features of grand style family portraiture, serving to suggest a country house setting and thus conveying a sense of social standing and personal dignity.1 The prominent foliage in the left foreground emphasises equally the presence of nature, and creates a sense of ambivalence by situating the figures somewhere between the domestic interior and the natural exterior, on ground which might be interpreted either as stone flooring or bare earth. All figures in the group face out to the viewer, with the exception of the boy in Van Dyck costume who looks upwards and reaches up to pass a pink rose to the baby, who in turn gazes down towards the rose and him. Following the gendered conventions of eighteenth-century family portraiture, the male head of the family, James Baillie, is positioned standing and occupying the highest position in the composition, his head forming the peak of a lopsided pyramid made up by the family group as a whole. His son and heir is shown in the most animated posture, calculated to catch the attention of the viewer, while the two older girls and mother are depicted in relatively inanimate poses.
The painting was among the group of eighteen that Thomas Gainsborough sent for exhibition at the annual show of the Royal Academy in spring 1784. The work is identified in a letter from Gainsborough to the Secretary of the Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy in April 1784 where it is represented by a thumbnail sketch captioned ‘Family Picture Mr Bailey’.2 The painting was almost the same size – and of a similar nearly-square format – as the dramatic picture of George, Prince of Wales, with his horse, by Gainsborough’s long-standing rival in the art of portraiture, Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was submitted to the same exhibition. This was installed as the centrepiece of the North Wall of the Great Room in the 1784 exhibition, and thus became a focus for critical and public attention.3 Given its size, The Baillie Family would probably have occupied a similarly prominent position in the always broadly symmetrical hang of the Great Room, and with its artistically ambitious evocation of a tradition of pictorially complex family portraits (going back to Van Dyck but including most recently Reynolds’s acclaimed Marlborough Family of 1777–9, Blenheim Palace) it would doubtless have attracted extensive critical commentary. However, in a dramatic move, Gainsborough withdrew this and all his other paintings from the exhibition after the Committee refused to accede to his request to hang his full-length portrait of the Three Eldest Princesses (now cut down, Royal Collection) below the ‘line’ which ran around the Great Room. This was established as the minimum height for hanging full-length portraits, but Gainsborough wanted his picture hung at a lower height as ‘the coloring is tender and delicate, so that the effect must be destroyed by an injudicious elevation’.4 This widely-reported drama marked the climax of a long-standing dispute between Gainsborough and the Academy, and he never again exhibited at the Royal Academy, electing instead to exhibit works at his home in Pall Mall.5
James Baillie (1737–1793), Member of Parliament for Horsham, was a merchant, the second son of Hugh Baillie of Dochfour. His wife, on whose chair he leans, was Colin Campbell of Glenure (died 1831), and they are shown with their first four children. From Baillie’s detailed will it is known that his eldest daughter – presumably the girl in the hat – was Janet Baillie (born 1774), his second daughter – presumably she with the flowers gathered in her dress – was Amelia, and his third daughter – presumably the baby – was Colin Campbell Baillie. In 1784 the Baillies had only one son, Alexander Baillie, who was born in 1777 and so would have been seven years old at the time of this portrait, and must be the boy in blue, holding his hand out to the infant. The Baillies’ second son, Hugh James, was born two years after this portrait was painted, and their third, Evan Hamilton (later the owner of this painting for a period), later still.
Although an early twentieth-century commentator claimed that in this picture ‘Gainsborough realistically makes the Baillies of Ealing Grove simple bourgeois of the 18th century’, the artist’s pictorial ambitions and the aristocratic associations of the composition and the detail are unmistakable.6 The painting is lush and complex, evoking the example of the courtly and aristocratic portraiture of Van Dyck not only in its scale or in details of costume but in its animated composition and painted surface. It demonstrates Gainsborough’s habitual brilliance at depicting children, as well as the rich colour and texture of fabrics. It also shows his lesser-appreciated ability to create an intricate but harmonious composition. Baillie’s relaxed pose creates a diagonal with the curtain, which is crossed by the descending line of the heads, the whole compositional sweep echoed by the curve of the eldest girl’s hat. An ‘x’ is formed at the centre of the work by the boy putting his hand under his mother’s arm to pass a rose to the infant, who in turn appears to be suddenly animated trying to reach the gift. This playful vignette gives pictorial depth to the centre of the group. Janet, the eldest girl, while posing in a formal manner, appears to be fiddling with her little sister’s hair, who has gathered flowers into her dress, creating the beginnings of a serpentine line that runs from the bottom left to the top right. Everywhere the children’s inability to stand still seems to be gently animating a standard family portrait.
Gainsborough had used a similar leaning pose for the father of the family in his group portrait of The Dehany Family c.1761 (private collection), although the lean is much more pronounced for James Baillie. Gainsborough may have known an even more exaggerated precursor of the father’s pose used by Thomas Hudson in a 1758 portrait of the Thistlethwayte Family (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven). A similar composition can be seen in John Francis Rigaud’s 1779 group portrait of the Locker Family in which a father stands, leaning on the chair of his wife, while the baby on the mother’s knee is handed a flower by an elder girl.7 Gainsborough was later to return to the composition of a girl gathering up nature in her dress in his portrait of the slightly more unruly Marsham Children 1787 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin).8
The prosperity of the Baillie family was based on Atlantic trade, which shaped the lives not only of the father in the painting, but also the children.9 James founded a trading house with his brothers, Alexander (who inherited Dochfour) and Evan (MP for Bristol), and made a substantial fortune through trade in St Kitts and Grenada, where he and Colin Campbell married in April 1772. Baillie’s Bacolet estate in Grenada, a sugar plantation worked by slaves, was given to his son Alexander in his will. James bequeathed the estate ‘and all its houses, storechambers, sugar houses, edifices ... and all the negroes and other slaves ... and all the progeny of the said negroes and slaves’ in trust for Alexander when he reached his twenty-fifth birthday.10 In 1808 (the year after the abolition of the slave trade within the British Empire, but while slavery itself remained legal in the colonies) Alexander travelled to Jamaica, presumably in connection with his father’s estates. On this trip he met his lifelong partner, Jurgen von Capellen Knudtzon, a Norwegian of independent means, and the two men seem to have embarked together on a life of European travel. Baillie had obviously imbibed a taste for high art, as he was drawn by the French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (private collection) and his bust was carved by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (Royal Society of Sciences and Letters, Trondhjem, Norway). They maintained a house in Naples, where Baillie was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in January 1855.
Janet Baillie, the eldest girl in the painting, married Matthew Higgins of Renown, County Meath, and lived in houses in London (Portland Place and Albermarle Street), and Milan. Upon the long-campaigned for abolition of slavery in 1833 she claimed her share of the government compensation given to slave owners for the loss of their property.11 Her claims were made on the basis of slave plantations in British Guiana and Bacolet in Grenada (for which Alexander also claimed). When she died in 1841 the estates were inherited by her son, Matthew James Higgins (1810–1868), who was a noted writer (under the pseudonym Jacob Omnium), and who kept this painting of his mother at 71 Eaton Square between 1857 and 1868.
The portrait was presumably painted for James Baillie who had properties in Bedford Square, London, and Ealing Grove, Middlesex. It passed to his eldest son Alexander Baillie (1777–1855) on his death in 1793. Alexander Baillie had residences in London and Naples, where, as noted above, he died in 1855. He bequeathed the work to the National Gallery, saying in his will ‘I give and bequeath unto the Trustees for the time being of the National Gallery of Painting in Trafalgar Square London my large picture of my father and mother and of the members of my family painted by Gainsborough on condition that the said painting be placed along with the other pictures and become and form part of the National Collection’.12 He allowed that the painting temporarily pass to his brother, Evan Hamilton Baillie, until the latter’s death. Evan Hamilton Baillie, who lived at 80 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, London, died in 1857,13 but despite the original terms of the bequest the work then passed through the hands of his nephew, the son of Janet Baillie, Matthew James Higgins. The retention of the painting by the family was questioned by the National Gallery in November 1857, but it was upheld by the Treasury.14 The painting was kept at Higgins’s house at 71 Eaton Square, and he was identified as the lender when the painting appeared at an exhibition of Old Masters at the British Institution in 1859.15 It remained with him until his death in 1868, when it was finally received by the National Gallery and accessioned as no.789. This delay and the ‘legally informal’ nature of the original bequest drew some public notice.16 It was removed from the National Gallery for safekeeping during wartime in 1915, but subsequently returned to display at Trafalgar Square.17 It was transferred to Tate Gallery in 1951.
The painting was very warmly received upon its public exhibition in 1859 (‘tremendous ... showing him in his most ambitious climax of portraiture’).18 After being installed at the National Gallery it continued to draw generally favourable commentary. The critic John Ruskin referred to it as ‘the largest Gainsborough, the best in England known to me’ but complained that it was ‘used merely for wall furniture at the top of the room’.19 Contemporary records do, indeed, indicate that it was hung above the sequence of six canvases making up Hogarth’s Marriage-a-la-Mode (National Gallery, London).20 Its subsequent reputation has been mixed. Walter Armstrong, in Gainsborough and his Place in British Art (1898) made a case for understanding Gainsborough as the ‘first Impressionist’ and consequently regarded the less considered works to be the true expression of Gainsborough’s impromptu genius. The Baillie Family, therefore, with its complex composition, was seen by Armstrong as ‘a collection of beautiful passages, not a picture’.21 This view of the artist as a great painter of single portraits was echoed by William Boulton in 1905. He suspected that the success of the Baillie portrait ‘depends less for its success upon the art of its composition than upon its presentment of feminine and childish beauty, its superb colour, and its faultless execution’.22 C.J. Holmes, responding in 1927 to Ruskin’s earlier, glowing assessment of the picture, concluded that it ‘has not been so favourably regarded by other critics’.23 The apparently exaggerated proportions of the sitters drew particular critical attention: Trenchard Cox, in a guide to the National Gallery published in 1930, quipped that ‘each member, old and young, of this colossally tall assembly appears to have taken a sip of Alice’s elongating liquid’.24 This was not a consensus view, however, and E. Rimbault Dibdin, whose glossy account of Gainsborough appeared in 1923 regarded it as ‘a brilliant example of his skill in composing and rendering easy and natural a complex group of figures, without in any way prejudicing the individuality of each portrait’.25
Technical analysis at the National Gallery showed that the canvas was originally composed of five sections stitched together prior to painting. The analysis also revealed that Gainsborough made many changes – the girl in pink was originally further to the left, all of the feet have been moved, the father’s legs, left arm and hand were repainted, and the rose was moved. At sometime in its subsequent history one section (top right) was replaced and repainted by another hand.
The painting was relined in 1857–8, and was lightly cleaned by the National Gallery in 1868 and 1887. It suffered some scratching and abrading ‘in transit by motor-van for Northamptonshire’ in 1917, when it seems to have been away from the gallery for safekeeping during wartime.26 It was repaired and the varnish renewed in 1919, but needed repair again after it was water-damaged during transport to Manod quarries during the Second World War. In 1951 the picture toppled onto a chair while being moved causing a ‘large irregular tear’ to the centre-right of James Baillie.27 A major treatment was carried out in 1984–6, and the work has been regularly displayed since.
Since the work entered the national collection several related paintings have come to light, although none apparently by Gainsborough himself. A copy, signed and dated by Alexander Fussell (active 1838–1876) was made for the descendants of the family, presumably to replace the painting after the bequest (private collection). A small version of the painting, badly rubbed and repainted, was sold by a London dealer, Mr Lever, in 1940 (having previously belonged to a W. Boswell of Norwich). It was sold as a sketch for the painting, although it was suspected by Tate Gallery staff to be a copy. A half-length version of Colin Campbell holding her baby as in this composition and apparently by Gainsborough’s nephew and studio assistant Gainsborough Dupont (1754–1797) is in a private collection and widely published online. A George H. Cobham of New York wrote to the National Gallery in 1936, at the prompting of its Director Kenneth Clark, saying he had a portrait of the girl with flowers in her dress.28 A full-length of the same girl (apparently a part-copy) was in the collection of Francesco Fais of Bari in 1960, which may be the same as that owned by Cobham.29 Tate received a letter about another part-copy, then in Utah, in 1988.30 An oddity – a mahogany-framed dummy board showing the same figure – was sold at Phillips in 1996.31 The source material for these variations and copies may have been the painting itself or the many printed reproductions that became available. There is an undated coloured mezzotint in the British Museum (1923, 0630.1), a black and white mezzotint in the Gainsborough House, a photogravure in the National Portrait Gallery (D7467), and numerous later engravings and reproductions. The number of copies alone seems to be testimony to the popularity of this painting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The painting has, though, been less widely celebrated in more recent times and has been discussed generally only in academic contexts. Its ‘matricentric’ composition has been used to illustrate a wider shift in social values towards domestic informality, while the contrast between the idyllic family scene and the brutal basis of the sitters’ wealth has been noted as part of the historical archaeology of the legacies of slave ownership.32 In 2008 it was reported that Inverness Museum and Art Gallery were seeking the painting on loan, a move which was deemed controversial because ‘the Baillie family of Dochfour was involved in the slave trade, yet they contributed heavily to the development of the Highlands’.33 Despite extensive local press coverage and political pressure, a formal loan request in 2008–9 could not be agreed for logistical reasons. In 2012 the painting was a centrepiece of an exhibition on ‘Golden Age’ British portraits held at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede, the Netherlands.
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