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Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton

Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton
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“For Thomas Gainsborough, genius was a curse,” said John Carey in The Sunday Times. The great 18th century artist is known for his dazzling portraits of the rich and famous, but his main love was painting landscapes – and especially the Suffolk countryside of his boyhood. Since the “fashion was for portraiture”, he struggled to find a market for his landscape paintings, and so turned to portraits “to survive”. Though he became “supremely” skilled at them, he never stopped resenting the “cursed face business”, or the “confounded ugly creatures” who lined up to be his subjects. His rudeness to clients was “legendary”: once, when a sitter found fault with a painting, he “flew into a rage and slashed it with a knife”. In this “compulsively readable” biography, James Hamilton reconstructs Gainsborough’s life with “great imaginative verve”, and is “constantly fascinating” about the artist’s paintings.

Gainsborough (1727-88), the son of a shroud-maker, was interested in much else besides painting, said Michael Prodger in The Times. He was a heavy drinker, a keen amateur musician, and a lover of “loose women” – his letters were burnt after his death because of the “profane filth” they contained. Despite an early marriage to the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort – who helpfully provided an annuity of £200 – he remained, as he put it, “deeply read in petticoats”. His “skirt-chasing” produced several doses of venereal disease, including one, in his 30s, that nearly proved fatal. As an artist, he was unschooled, though his pictures “reveal how closely he looked at Rubens, Van Dyck and especially the Dutch landscapists”. As Hamilton’s “vivid” biography makes clear, Gainsborough’s sitters got two things “for their guineas”: a “likeness of imperishable glamour”, and the “company of a man who was every bit as lively and engaging as his paintings”.

Gainsborough spent much of his adult life in the provinces, “first basing himself in his native Suffolk and then living for 16 years in Bath”, said Robin Simon in Literary Review. This may have been because Joshua Reynolds, his great rival and “opposite in every respect”, was “kingpin” in London. But eventually, in 1774, Gainsborough moved to the capital, and spent his final years “taking on Reynolds head to head”. The building he moved to – Schomberg House on Pall Mall – still stands today: it testifies “to the grandeur in which a successful artist could live in the 18th century”.

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