Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough

A great English master of 18th century Rococo Britain was Thomas Gainsborough. Alongside William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds, they formed the holding ground for English Rococo inspired by the French Rococo and Italian Baroque painting. Gainsborough was a portraitist more than anything else, by which he had a very successful life.

Gainsborough was strongly influenced by the mentorship of Jean-Antoine Watteau, a French painter. He learned much of his Baroque-esque and decorative painting styles from Watteau albeit he outlasted the career stint of his master who had a brief successful years. Gainsborough started out young in his career, as early as 13 years old, wherein he earned his first apprenticeship years in Hubert Gravelot’s studio.

Thomas Gainsborough established a solid reputation in the cities of Bath and London. His stay in London was the most significant one for it is where he had achieved different heights of success; from his association with the premier Royal Academy, being a court painter to King George III, up to doing commissioned works for private and wealthy individuals such as Lady Charlotte Talbot.

The Suffolk-native produced a good number of masterpiece-worthy works. He had also painted landscapes besides portraits. Some examples are the Landscape in Suffolk in 1748, The Harvest Wagon in 1767, and the River Landscape in 1770. When it comes to portraits, his most famous works include his self-portrait (1754), Johann Christian Bach (1776), Colonel John Bullock (1780), and Georgina Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1783).

Early Life

The exact birth date of Thomas Gainsborough was unknown, but it has been established that he was baptized in May 14, 1727. His father was a skilled weaver in the town of Suffolk. His family was quite popular in town because two of his brothers were into designing machines; probably the first designs in the industry at the time.

For example, it is believed that his brother Humphrey invented the process of condensing steam using a different or separate container. This was served James Watt well as he have come out to be the man behind the discovery of world’s first steam engine. However, apparently, Thomas didn’t join in the rank of his brothers as he went on living his life the way he wanted it to be – a painter.

Pre-Golden Years

In 1740, the youngest of the Gainsborough siblings moved to London to study art. English masters like William Hogarth, Hubert Gravelot, and Francis Hayman became his teachers and companions. He got accepted at Hogarth’s school for engravers at the time, in which he was schooled by Francis Hayman. He also served as his assistant as they both worked on a couple of important projects such as in decorating the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children and Vauxhall Gardens’ supper boxes.

Also around 1740, Gainsborough married the Duke of Beaufort’s illegitimate daughter named Margaret Burr. The Duke had settled around £200 for the two as they form their own family, and was due to the fact that the painter was not earning well at the time.

His painting genre were mostly landscapes, which was considered as the lowest form of art in the hierarchy during the 18th century. This could be the reason his works wasn’t selling very well on the market, particularly on the upscale market. Fortunately, he decided to shift to painting portraits after he moved to Sudbury in 1748.

At Sudbury, he began receiving portrait commissions. He then moved to Ipswich together with his two daughters. There he received a much more number of portrait works but his patrons were mostly regular merchants. His earnings were only enough to support the growing needs of his family that he also had to resort to borrowing his wife’s annuity.


As he struggled as an artist in Ipswich, Gainsborough decided to try his luck in Bah in 1759. He stayed at The Circus, number 17 where he also chanced upon the portraits of Van Dyck and studied them closely. As he adopt the style of Van Dyck, he began to improve his painting style and his number of clientele.

He became a rising portraitist in the city, wherein 1761, he gained enough confidence to send his paintings to the Society of Arts Exhibition in London. He became one of its founding members eventually which was his stepping stone to entering the bigger stage, the Royal Academy. He sent some works to the academy in 1769, some of which had been featured on its exhibitions.

He sent portraits of his illustrious clients from Sudbury and Bath. It served him well for his number of clients increased, enabling him to build a nationally-known reputation. He was then invited by the Royal Academy to be one of its founding members in 1769. However, his career stint at the academy was not a piece of cake as he encountered some jealousy issues against his colleagues. By 1773, he stopped featuring his works via the academy’s exhibitions.

Settling Down in London for Good

Because of Gainsborough’s issues with the Royal Academy, he moved to London together with his family. They stayed in Schomberg House in Pall Mall. However, in 1777, he then again re-connected to the Royal Academy for some reason. So the English master accepted exhibition opportunities at the academy once more.

In the 1770’s exhibition, he displayed portraits of highly celebrated individuals like the Duchess of Cumberland. This exhibition lasted for about six years, showing how things between the two parties must have been resolved. Overall, Gainsborough still had a fruitful relationship with the Royal Academy.

As a Court Portrait Artist

Thomas Gainsborough was summoned by King George III in 1780 to paint a portrait of him. He gained a handful of money from this royally commission, including some portraits for the Queen. This undeniably gave him an upper hand in the academy in terms of influence and position. In fact, his association with the King gave him some room to decide what kind of painting manner he would use for his would-be exhibited art works.

In 1783, Gainsborough became even more independent. He withdrew his exhibitions at the academy and relocated them to his household. And when Allan Ramsay, the court artist at the time, died it was Joshua Reynolds who assumed the vacated position rather than Gainsborough. Art historians say that the King only felt the need to do it, although Gainsborough remained to be his favorite artist.

Advanced Years

In his advanced years, Thomas Gainsborough opted to simplify his painting style and composition. He went back to his original genre, which was landscape painting. He mainly painted the British landscapes popular during the 18th century, and then together with Richard Wilson, they have established a school for landscape painting.

In August 1788, Gainsborough succumbed to cancer. Before his death, he wished upon the royal couple to be buried at St. Anne’s Church in Surrey. He got his wish as his remains were interred at the said church, next to Francis Bauer. He died at the age of 61, leaving a wife and two daughters behind.