Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Cornard Wood, c.1740 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Cornard Wood, c.1740, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
25 x 30 inches, 63.5 x 76 cm
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This picture is arguably the earliest significant landscape work by Thomas Gainsborough. It was painted in about 1740, and shows a scene outside his home town of Sudbury, in Suffolk. Its rediscovery, in the United States, adds considerably to our understanding of Gainsborough’s development as an artist, and resolves the lasting uncertainty over the origins of his best known landscape work, ‘Cornard Wood’ (also known as ‘Gainsborough’s Forest’), now in the National Gallery, London.

Today, the National Gallery’s ‘Cornard Wood’ is regarded as one of the most important landscapes by an English artist. It was also highly regarded in Gainsborough’s lifetime (frequently changing hands) and elicited a letter from the artist himself, published in a national newspaper, recalling its origins. In 1788 he wrote, “It is in some respects a little in the Schoolboy stile – but I do not reflect on this without gratification; for – as an early instance how strong my inclination stood for LANDSKIP, this picture was actually painted at Sudbury in the year 1748; it was begun before I left school; - and was the means of my Father’s sending me to London.” [ Letter as published in the Morning Herald reproduced in facsimile in ‘The British School’, Judy Egerton, (National Gallery Catalogues, 1998), p.74].

This letter has always mystified scholars, for Gainsborough’s chronology seems confused. Although he states that ‘Cornard Wood’ was painted in 1748, he also relates to it being begun before he left school, and before his father sent him to London. Gainsborough left Sudbury for London in about 1740, at around the age of twelve or thirteen (his friend Sir Henry Bate-Dudley later wrote that Gainsborough was ‘in his 13th year’ [Hayes, ibid, Volume One, p.57]). So, Gainsborough was either mistaken in his recollection, or the picture took eight years to complete.

However, the discovery of another, earlier version of ‘Cornard Wood’ means that Gainsborough’s letter now makes perfect sense. The National Gallery picture was indeed painted in around 1748, at around the time Gainsborough returned to Sudbury after his apprenticeship in London. But he had begun to paint the scene itself long before. The late John Hayes (having presumably been aware of this work from a photograph and describing it as ‘a small variant copy’) concluded that ‘the most obvious explanation is that when still a schoolboy he had made drawings and sketches from which this picture is derived and only took them up again later’ [Hayes, ibid, Volume Two, p345]. The later discovery that the view in ‘Cornard Wood’ is an actual location which Gainsborough would have known well, and not some imagined scene, renders this more likely. And if, as Gainsborough states, it was an earlier picture of Cornard Wood that ‘enabled’ his father to send him to London (by which presumably he means either that it was sold, or simply that his father was sufficiently convinced of his talent) then surely an accomplished example such as this is exactly what he meant.

A further understanding of Gainsborough’s artistic upbringing and a close comparison of the present picture with the later ‘Cornard Wood’ would appear to confirm such a hypothesis. Gainsborough almost certainly began painting before he was a teenager. A small ‘Self-Portrait’ [Private Collection, UK], probably done in 1739, is an accomplished work, and shows the confidence with which he approached his earliest works in oils. We certainly know that he was a precocious draughtsman from an early age. An early biographer, G. W Fulcher, relates that he skipped school to draw landscapes, and it is even said that his mother was an amateur artist [G. W. Fulcher, Life of Thomas Gainsborough R.A., (London, 1856), p.6]. A friend, Philip Thicknesse, later wrote that Gainsborough ‘was born a painter… the first effort he made with [a pencil]… of a group of trees… would not be unworthy a place, at this day, in one of his best landscapes.’ [‘Gainsborough’ Rosenthal & Myrone Eds. (Tate Exhibition Catalogue 2002) p.40].

Cornard Wood is located to the South East of Sudbury, and was then common land (now, it is threatened with development). The view seen in both versions of ‘Cornard Wood’ would have been taken from the hill at Abbas Hall, looking South West, over the River Stour, towards Great Henny. The church of St Mary’s at Henny, with its distinctive spire, can be seen in the background of the National Gallery’s ‘Cornard Wood’, and, more simply drawn, in the present picture. It has often been remarked that the National Gallery picture is a flawed composition – evidence of Gainsborough’s youthful naivety; with the tree in the centre presenting the viewer with an awkward foreground. True, Gainsborough himself wrote that ‘there is very little idea of composition in the picture’ [Egerton, ibid, p.74], but Gainsborough’s other early landscape works, such as ‘Wooded Landscape with Peasant Resting’ [c.1746-7, Tate Gallery], are often masterpieces of composition, with the viewer’s eye guided effortlessly through the picture, that we should not necessarily regard the National’s ‘Cornard Wood’ as a momentary lapse.

Instead, Gainsborough is simply presenting us with Cornard Wood as he saw it. The discovery of the present picture evidently shows that the subject and composition were formed in his mind from an early date. The intense level of detail in the National’s ‘Cornard Wood’ bears all the hallmarks of an initial concept being repeatedly improved, and must be further proof that he was building on earlier versions of the same scene. It is the busiest of all Gainsborough’s landscapes. It includes a cow, two donkeys, three dogs, flying ducks, five people and, in the distance, a sharply lit village, each detail a further exploration of Gainsborough’s skill, until the whole canvas bursts with activity. One commentator has even suggested that ‘Cornard Wood’ ‘can be read as a reminder of the path to Salvation’ [Gainsborough’s Vision, Asfour & Williamson (Liverpool1999) p.29]. The more prosaic reality, as this newly discovered work now shows, is that Gainsborough was simply making a true to life study of a favoured rural spot not far from his boyhood home. We must therefore place a greater emphasis on his remark that the National Gallery’s ‘Cornard Wood’ relies at its heart on its ‘closeness to nature’ [Egerton, ibid, p.74]

Of course, comparison of the present, earlier ‘Cornard Wood’ with that at the National Gallery shows that Gainsborough dramatically improved the composition from his first youthful effort. In the present picture, the large tree in the foreground is placed so dominantly in the centre of the canvas that it is unclear as to whether this is simply a study of a tree, or a depiction of the larger wood beyond. We are uncertain whether to look to its left or right, as the picture appears to split in two, and it is noticeable that the older Gainsborough, when he revisited the subject, added a deeper foreground to the National Gallery picture, another section of trees to the left, and a prominent figure in front of the path, thus leading the viewer’s eye comfortably through the figures and the path towards the church in the background. The later picture also appears to be taken from a higher vantage point than the earlier attempt; in the present picture we are in the Wood, whereas in the later picture we are more distant observers. Other notable changes include the placing of a woman in the later picture, where here we have just two workmen (is this an early glimpse of Gainsborough’s emerging concept of the rural idyll?) And perhaps the most obvious difference of all, beyond the technical improvement, is the change in colour and tone. The National’s picture presents a more plausible array of natural, clearly autumnal, colours. Here, however, the background trees are a summery green, while the central tree is crisp and golden brown (and too light for a copper beech).

We come then to the question of the stylistic influences seen here in this early work. It is fitting that this picture, when recently sold at auction in the United States, was mistaken for a Dutch landscape, for if any English artist could be called ‘Follower of Van Ruysdael’, as this picture was catalogued, it was the young Gainsborough. Here, we see an entirely naturalistic depiction of the landscape, which, in 1740, would have been quite alien to the prevailing English fashion for idealised creations by Claude or Poussin. In lighting and technique, this picture is approached in the manner of a seventeenth century Dutch landscape; key subject areas are highlighted by strong pools of light (as with many of Gainsborough’s early works) while the sky could be taken directly from any work by Meindert Hobbema. Perhaps most telling is the handling of the dense, well-varied foliage, which again can be seen in other early Gainsborough’s, such as ‘Portrait of a young Gentleman with a Dog’ [c.1744-5, Lawford Hall] and ‘Portrait of Mr Clayton Jones’ [c.1744-5, Yale Center for British Art].

It is often supposed that Gainsborough only really began to explore Dutch artists during his time in London – the c.1747 pencil copy of Ruisdael’s ‘La Foret’ [Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester] being the most obvious example. And yet, living as he was in East Anglia, and belonging to a family of prosperous wool traders, we can be fairly certain that the young Gainsborough would have been exposed to Dutch artistic influences, not least in the form of engravings, from an early age. East Anglian trade was dependant on trade with the Low Countries, and large numbers of Dutch and Flemish ‘Strangers’ had settled in the area during the seventeenth century. Sadly, documentary biographical details of Gainsborough’s early years are almost non-existent, and we cannot be sure whom the young artist admired most. As ever, the most telling clues lie in the pictures themselves.

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