Thomas Gainsborough and the making of the Suffolk Landscape
The artist Thomas Gainsborough is today remembered as one of the most significant figures in the development of landscape as a genre in British art. Born in the market town of Sudbury, Suffolk, in 1727, he was exposed to scenes of great natural beauty from an early age and spent much of his youth exploring the fields and forests surrounding his birthplace. Sudbury’s ancient water meadows, situated just a stone’s throw away from the family home, afforded the perfect opportunity for close encounters of the pastoral kind. As Gainsborough’s early studies of nature suggest, the grassy banks, meandering pathways, and shallow pools – which to this day function as watering places for cattle – were of great interest to the young artist. Indeed, they remained so for the rest of his life: such subjects, which speak eloquently of the water meadows’ essential character, were a constant point of pictorial return throughout his career. According to Gainsborough’s friend and early biographer, Philip Thicknesse, ‘there was not a Picturesque clump of Trees, nor even a single Tree of beauty, no, nor hedge row...for some miles round about the place of his nativity, that he had not so perfectly in his mind’s eye’.
In some contrast to the bucolic setting of Gainsborough’s childhood, in 1740 he was sent to London to train as an artist, aged just 13. Among the hubbub of the metropolis he studied at the St Martin’s Lane academy in Covent Garden, and soon after set up his own studio a mile or so to the east, on the edge of the City in Hatton Garden. In this urban context, Gainsborough’s experience of landscape inevitably became less directly shaped by his immediate physical surroundings, and more profoundly affected by his exposure to a variety of old and new artworks imported from the Continent. Through excursions to private collections, visits to auction sale previews, and many hours undoubtedly spent in coffee houses and print shops, where engraved images could be found in abundance, the budding artist would have had easy access to a rich body of source material to inform and inspire his own practice as a landscape painter.
It is arguably this combination of early encounters with landscape that led to the development of Gainsborough’s distinctive approach to the genre, in which the real and imagined worlds are brought together to create harmonious compositions. On the one hand, Gainsborough was powerfully inspired by the British landscape he knew so well, and in particular the countryside of his native Suffolk. So many of his landscape paintings and drawings evoke a strong sense of place and convey an emotional attachment to the natural world that was familiar to him. At the same time, however, he was a fastidious student of past masters. He ardently subscribed to the academic conventions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painting, exemplified by the idealised landscapes of artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael, Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet. For Gainsborough, studying these masters’ works, and integrating their respective styles with his own, was an essential part his practice as a landscape artist. This was something that he readily acknowledged. For example, when, in the 1760s, the Earl of Hardwicke attempted to commission from Gainsborough a landscape representing a specific view on his estate, the artist replied:
'Mr Gainsborough presents his Humble respects to Lord Hardwicke; and shall always think it an honor to be employ’d in any thing for his Lordship; but with regard to real Views from Nature in this Country, he has never seen any Place that affords a Subject equal to the poorest imitations of Gaspar or Claude…If His Lordship wishes to have any thing tollerable of the name of G[ainsborough] the Subject altogether, as well [as the] figures &c must be of his own Brain'.
In view of Gainsborough’s apparent aversion to topography (that is, the accurate representation of particular places and their natural features) it may seem surprising that a volume associated with Suffolk, in the King George III Topographical Collection at the British Library, contains two landscape compositions by the artist. Within this volume, maps and plans sit side by side with prospects of towns and rural views to create a rich visual tapestry of the county. Images rooted in objective fact, and others more expressive of a creative vision, work in tandem to present a concise impression of the land.
A view near to Sudbury in Suffolk
Gainsborough’s View near to Sudbury was one of a series engraved and published by John BoydellView images from this item (2)
The first work by Gainsborough to be found in the volume dates from 1747, and is titled A View near to Sudbury in Suffolk. Engraved by John Boydell, it reproduces a drawing by Gainsborough, which unfortunately no longer survives. Nevertheless, this engraved reproduction offers a telling indication of Gainsborough’s developing style at the time, and may be considered one of his earliest publically disseminated landscape compositions. It shares a page with another Sudbury-related view, titled Mill at Sudbury Suffolk - a scene that is still largely recognisable today, and can be pinpointed quite accurately on a map. In Gainsborough’s image, we are presented with a view of a manicured parkland setting – perhaps the formal garden of a local manor, or a picturesque corner on an estate belonging to one of his early patrons? A resplendent array of shrubs and trees form the backdrop for a series of ornamental ponds. Glimpses of distant buildings can be observed through gaps in the foliage. In the foreground, a trio of figures can be seen enjoying a picnic on a grassy bank; two of them tuck into food from a basket while the third swigs from a flagon. In the middle distance, two women engage in conversation by the water’s edge. Though an exact location is not provided, the caption beneath the image does suggest that it is representative of somewhere in the vicinity of Gainsborough’s hometown of Sudbury. Indeed, the reference to Sudbury in the title explains how the engraving came to be included in King George III’s topographic collection, in an album dedicated to the county of Suffolk. Likewise, a copy of the same print is contained in a topographic album concerned with Suffolk in the collection at Gainsborough’s House. Doubtless there are similar albums in other collections in which the same image can also be found.
Drawn after Nature
Despite its geographically vague title, Drawn after Nature is in fact a view of the area around Sudbury, Gainsborough’s birthplace in SuffolkView images from this item (1)
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Held by: : © The British Museum
Despite having such a strong historical association with the accumulation of topographic knowledge, we may question the extent to which A View near to Sudbury in Suffolk is really concerned with the accurate representation of a particular place – not least because a second version of the engraving was published around the same time, but with an alternative title: Drawn after Nature. With all suggestion of geographic specificity removed, this version perhaps invites us to consider the view in quite different terms. As the well-known Gainsborough scholar John Hayes once noted, the image is strikingly schematic in its formal construction. Moreover, the dainty characters are reminiscent of elegant figure studies by Gainsborough’s French drawing master, Hubert-François Gravelot. Gainsborough was certainly not averse to artificially peopling his landscapes 'to fill a place...or to create a little business for the Eye to be drawn from the Trees in order to return to them with more glee'. Although the composition and its cast of characters may well be rooted to a particular place and time, observed by the artist ‘near to Sudbury’, it seems in equal measure an expression of what he had learnt and achieved in London.
South east view of Landguard Fort
Gainsborough was commissioned to produce the painting in 1753 by Philip Thicknesse, who was then Lieutenant-Governor of Landguard FortView images from this item (3)
The second work by Gainsborough represented in King George III’s Suffolk album is a large panoramic vista of the Suffolk coast at Landguard Fort, engraved by Thomas Major after a painting by Gainsborough. Both the original painting and its engraved counterpart were commissioned by Gainsborough’s friend and patron, Philip Thicknesse, who was Lieutenant-Governor of Landguard Fort at the time. Thicknesse records the details of the commission in some detail: 'as I wanted a subject to employ Mr. Gainsborough’s pencil in the Landscape way, I desired him to come and eat a dinner with me, and to take down in his pocket book, the particulars of the Fort, the adjacent hills, and the distant view of Harwich, in order to form a landscape'. In accordance with Thicknesse’s desire for a topographically accurate view, the caption beneath the engraving denotes that the orientation is ‘South East’. As per his request, the Fort, and Harwich, on a distant peninsular across the water, are both present in the picture. A plan of Landguard Fort, dated 1725, which appears on the adjoining page in the Kings’ topographic album, helps us to accurately position Gainsborough’s viewpoint.
A plan of Landguard Fort
Cliffs, fields, roads, shoals and inlets are shown on this plan of Landguard Fort and HarwichView images from this item (1)
In the foreground of Gainsborough’s image there is a great deal of liveliness and human interest; this is, perhaps, where the boundary between the real and imaginary becomes blurred. A male figure, who can be seen reclining on a fallen tree, is thought to represent Thicknesse himself. His seated position, with legs splayed, emulates a recognisable motif employed by Gainsborough in other portraits at the time. In turn, the distinctive posture derives from an early 1740s painting by Francis Hayman, which was displayed for dramatic effect at Vauxhall pleasure gardens.
The Wapping Landlady
Francis Hayman produced The Wapping Landlady as part of a scheme of decorative paintings for the Vauxhall GardensView images from this item (1)
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Held by: : © The British Museum
Other notable features introduced into the landscape include a horse-drawn wagon disappearing down a winding path, and a sleeping shepherd on a grassy knoll: both distinctive components in other works by Gainsborough, and clearly part of his contemporary pictorial repertoire.
Open landscape with country wagon on an undulating track
Gainsborough painted Open Landscape in around 1746-7 when he was working in LondonView images from this item (2)
Usage terms: : On loan from a private collection to Gainsborough's House, Sudbury
Wooded landscape with horse and boy sleeping
Wooded Landscape may be a finished drawing or an idea for a paintingView images from this item (2)
By offsetting the distant panorama of Landguard Fort with these kinds of details in a narrow strip of foreground at the foot of the picture plane, Gainsborough was evidently drawing upon a particular form of imagery known as the ‘prospect view’. Despite having its roots in the Netherlandish tradition, this mode of representation was re-popularised in England during the 1730s and 40s by the artists Samuel and Nathaniel Buck. Together, the Buck brothers undertook a British-wide pictorial survey to create an extensive a series of townscapes, which were subsequently published and disseminated in engraved form.
The east prospect of St Edmunds Bury
The East Prospect of St Edmunds Bury was published at the beginning of 1741 as part of Samuel and Nathaniel Bucks’ Cities, Sea-ports and Capital Towns seriesView images from this item (1)
Usage terms: : Public Domain
Their 1741 Prospect of St. Edmundsbury in the County of Suffolk is one of the many images resulting from the project, and a copy appears in King George III’s Suffolk volume, just a few pages removed from Gainsborough’s representation of Landguard Fort. As was a convention of the genre, the animated frieze foregrounding the Bucks’ prospect contains numerous figures engaged in different activities. The presence of this work in close proximity to Gainsborough’s draws attention to the kind of model from which he took his cue, and in doing so reveals how he may have diverted from recording the view of the Suffolk coast as he actually witnessed it.
By offering pictorial juxtapositions such as those outlined above, George III’s Suffolk album provides an intriguing framework for thinking about Gainsborough’s practice as a landscape artist. When we look at works like A View near to Sudbury in Suffolk and Landguard Fort in this context, we may better understand how they operated both in dialogue with, and at a remove from, the pictorial tradition known as ‘topography’. Clearly, for Gainsborough, the world he experienced physically, the world he inhabited imaginatively, and the world he saw through other artist’s eyes, were not fundamentally opposed: on the contrary, when it came to creating works of landscape, for him they were inseparable.
 Philip Thicknesse, A Sketch of the Life and Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, Esq. (London: printed for the author, 1788), p.6. The original letter is held here, at the British Library (Hardwicke Papers, vol.II, Add MS 35350).
 The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, ed. by John Hayes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), p.30.
 John Hayes and Lindsay Stainton, Gainsborough Drawings (Washington D.C: International Exhibitions Foundation, 1983), p.4.
 Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, p.40.
 Thicknesse, Life of Thomas Gainsborough, p.12.