Thomas Gainsborough

Tristram and Fox


Not on display

Thomas Gainsborough 1727–1788
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 610 × 508 mm
frame: 800 × 702 × 80 mm
Presented by the family of Richard J. Lane 1896


Gainsborough had a countryman’s love of dogs and included them in numerous portraits and landscape paintings. He also painted a few works where dogs were the central subjects. These include one of his earliest known works, Bumper (1745; private collection), Pomeranian Dogs (1777; Tate N05844) and this portrait of Tristram and Fox. While most individual canine portraits were produced for their owners, this is apparently a personal one, for Tristram and Fox were the artist’s own pets.

The identification of the animals in this oil portrait as Tristram and Fox, however, is not conclusive, for the subject was not titled by the artist. Nor was it engraved. It may have been the received opinion of the artist’s descendants who gave the painting to the National Gallery in 1896, and has been accepted as such ever since. A chalk sketch by Gainsborough of two dogs, probably dating from the 1780s (sold Christie’s June 13 2001, lot 5), was later reproduced as a lithograph by R. J. Lane in 1827, with the printed inscription, ‘Tristram and Fox. Favorites [sic] of Gainsborough’. However, the two dogs in the sketch are quite different from those in the painting, indicating that either the drawing or the painting has been wrongly identified at some point.

The choice of his dogs’ names is indicative of Gainsborough’s sense of humour and his awareness of contemporary literary and intellectual culture. Tristram is thought to have been named after the eponymous hero of Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, (1759-67). The centrally placed dog was probably called Fox simply because of its vulpine appearance, although it may also have been a humorous allusion to Charles James Fox (1749-1806), the Whig politician.

Gainsborough’s affectionate portrayal of the two dogs is in keeping with the cult of sensibility (of which Sterne’s novel was a key text) that advocated kindness to animals and an understanding of their various natures. Both handling and the viewpoint here encourage us to see the dogs as sentient beings in their own right, a perception enhanced by the catch-lights in Fox’s eyes along with his part-opened mouth. They are clearly shown as family companions rather than working or sporting animals.

The two dogs meant a great deal to Gainsborough and his wife. According to the artist’s early biographer, G.W. Fulcher, Gainsborough sometimes characterised himself as Fox in correspondence with his wife: ‘Whenever [Gainsborough] spoke crossly to his wife ...he would write a note of repentance, sign it with the name of his favourite dog, ‘Fox’, and address it to his Margaret’s pet spaniel, ‘Tristram’. Fox would take the note in his mouth and duly deliver it...’ (Fulcher, pp.152-3).

It is difficult to identify which breeds Tristram and Fox belong to, partly because present-day breeds may look markedly different today from their appearance in the eighteenth century. The dogs are clearly of two different breeds: Fox, on the left, with its pointed, folded-down ears, feathered coat and white frilled collar, appears to be a collie-like breed, perhaps a Shetland Sheepdog, while Tristram, on the right, with its floppy silken ears, is similar to a spaniel, some varieties of which are black and tan in colouring. It appears to be a small dog although, as it is lying down (while Fox is sitting upright), the scale could be misleading. It may perhaps be a larger dog, such as a setter: the Gordon setter has the characteristic brown circular markings on the eye brows.

The painting probably dates from Gainsborough’s early London period, and is recorded by Sir Ellis Waterhouse as having hung over the chimney piece in Gainsborough’s London house. It may originally have had a more horizontal format, for the unfinished figure of Tristram on the right appears to have been cut down.

Further Reading
George Williams Fulcher, Life of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A., 1856
Michael Rosenthal and Martin Myrone (eds.) Gainsborough, Tate exhibition catalogue, 2002, no.107
E.K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, London 1958, no. 822, reproduced pl.292.
Important British & Irish Art, Christie’s sale catalogue, London 13 June 2001 under lot 5

Diane Perkins
August 2003

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Technique and condition

The painting is executed on a plain weave, probably linen canvas. There is no exposed canvas visible to make a weave count possible, but the weave appears to be fine. The original cusping along the left hand edge suggests that it was stretched using tacks before the paint was applied. Samples taken from the edges of the painted area were made into cross-sections and dispersions and analysed by Dr. Joyce Townsend, Conservation Science Department, Tate Gallery. These provided some information as to the structure and composition of the ground and paint layers in certain areas.

The canvas is primed with an ochre-brown ground layer, which is visible with the naked eye and under the microscope through worn paint layers. Light microscopy of the cross-section suggests that it consists of lead white, orange/brown ochre and ground glass mixed into it. The medium was not analysed but is thought to be oil. This layer is painted thinly and uniformly over the whole of the remaining surface.

The portrait appears to be very thinly painted, and the cross-section from the black line on the left ear of Tristram (dark Spaniel) shows that there are four distinct layers of paint. Directly above the ground are two layers of light yellow/green pigment, consisting of lead white, yellow ochre, bone black and ground glass. Both layers contain the same pigments but appear to have been laid on consecutively. Above these lighter layers there is dark brown layer. Although the pigments are too dark to resolve in the cross-section, the dispersion, made from fragments of this sample, revealed a large amount of bone black, dark brown particles, probably brown ochres, some lead white, some ground glass and the odd particle of vermilion. The upper-most layer above the dark brown was a thin layer of pale pink consisting of lead white and a very few particles of vermilion or Mars red.

In the mid-brown background just above Tristram's ear, revealed a similar layer structure with slightly different colouring. Above the light brown priming is a pale pink layer consisting of lead white and vermilion with either ground glass or chalk. On top of the pink is a very dark brown layer, which in dispersion appears to consist of brown ochres, bone black and vermilion. Above this is a fragmentary grey layer made up of bone black particles in lead white.

The sample taken from a light area of Fox's tail was made into a dispersion and the pigments visible in light microscopy were lead white, brown ochre, red ochre, bone black, probably naples yellow and ground glass.

The technique used by Gainsborough in this painting seems to comply with what is known of his approach to other works, although the range of pigments here is minimal. Apparently Gainsborough liked roughness which was 'of use in giving force to the effect at a proper distance' ('The Great Artists: Their Lives, Works and Inspiration' 48 Gainsborough, Marshall Cavendish Weekly Collection, p.1507).

Gainsborough is said to have used long brushes to achieve this effect and diluted his paints with turpentine to such an extent that they almost spilled from his palette. He is also known to have been fond of feathery brushwork. All of these elements appear to be present in Tristram and Fox, particularly in the figure of Fox. The lively texture of his fur is made up of slightly rough, feathery brushstrokes in dilute paint over the lower layers of darker colours. This rough brushwork is off-set by the precision with which Gainsborough has executed the smooth, shiny surface of his eyes, nose and mouth. The unfinished figure of Tristram is laid in with rough brushwork, of various brown and black tones, but does not have the finish of Fox's fur, created by the feathery strokes.

The background varies from area to area on the painting. The left hand side consists of a warm brown tone painted roughly over the ochre ground, giving it a reddish glow and allowing the ground to play a role in the final effect. On the right hand side this is transformed into a cooler, greyer tone, presumably by scumbling an opaque grey layer over the dark brown. The foreground also consists of opaque scumbles over a dark brown layer, but these vary slightly in tone, creating the step upon which both dogs rest and the darker shadow beneath.

The inclusion of glass amongst the pigments used by Gainsborough was possibly a device to lend luminosity to a semi-transparent paint film. The pigments used by Gainsborough in this painting, as seen in the samples, tend to be black, white, semi- transparent ochres and vermilion with the odd particle of crimson lake. The glass would provide a degree of translucency to lift the final paint effect and liven up the layers. There is also a possibility that the glass was included as a drier for oil. As far as is known, Gainsborough used pure oil medium, often using poppy or walnut oil for the lights. These oils are known to be slow drying and the glass may have speeded up the process. The inclusion of glass in greater quantity has been noted in many of Gainsborough's early landscapes and conversation pieces.

Annette King
May 1998

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