For many people the greatest British portrait painter, Gainsborough was the contemporary and rival of Joshua Reynolds with whom he is often compared. After a childhood in Suffolk when his artistic talents were soon apparent – he would often play truant in order to go out sketching in the woods and fields of Sudbury – he was sent to London at the age of about 13 to study under the French printmaker Gravelot and the painter Francis Hayman. At the same time he probably attended the St Martin’s Lane Academy.
Gainsborough seems to have set himself up as an independent painter around 1745 and was active in London until 1748 when, on the death of his father, he returned to his native Sudbury. His early landscapes of the Suffolk countryside reveal a knowledge of 17th-century Dutch painters, such as Jacob van Ruisdael, and mark an important development in British landscape painting. Indeed Gainsborough placed almost equal weight on his landscape and portrait practice, although all his life he regarded landscape as his true calling.
Gainsborough’s attraction to the peaceful and unassuming corners of the English countryside, which he imbued with a poetic sensibility, is illustrated by his Trees by a pool. The drawing looks entirely natural, but the composition is highly ordered, with a foreground pool flanked by mossy banks and trees, funnelling the eye through the winding clearing to the church tower beyond. A similar poetic sensibility is evident in his later drawings A wooded landscape with a figure seated by a pool c1786 and A wooded landscape with a horse c1786.
From 1752 to 1759 Gainsborough worked in Ipswich primarily as a portrait painter until, seeking a more fashionable and wealthier clientele, he settled in Bath. There his portrait style developed its full sophistication and bravura technique. At the same time his landscapes, particularly under the influence of Rubens, became stagier and more dramatic. It was in Ipswich that he painted The Reverend Samuel Kilderbee c1758, an attorney and town clerk of Ipswich, who the artist met in the 1750s and who would become Gainsborough’s lifelong friend.
In 1774 he moved to London, and during the later 1770s and 80s his work became more experimental and various in its range of subjects. At this period Gainsborough also started painting large scale ‘fancy pictures’ which dramatise the life of the rural poor in a sentimental vein recalling the 17th-century Spanish painter Murillo. In London he also experimented with soft-ground etching and with ‘transparencies’ (paintings on glass lit from behind).
Gainsborough was an exhibitor at the Royal Society of Artists from 1761 and at the Royal Academy from its foundation in 1768 until 1774 when his relationships with the institution soured. His nephew Gainsborough Dupont became an apprentice in 1772 and continued to act as a studio assistant, though Gainsborough in general made little use of collaborators.