Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Wooded Landscape with Figures, Cottage and a Pool 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Wooded Landscape with Figures, Cottage and a Pool, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
12 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches
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This small landscape is one of few such scenes (hardly more than a dozen or so are known) painted by Gainsborough at the outset of his time at Bath. It can be dated to between 1758-62, and represents an important new addition to his early ‘landskips’. Recent restoration has dramatically revealed a work of intense luminosity and atmosphere, painted with all of Gainsborough’s usual confidence and skill.

Dr John Hayes previously considered the prime version to be that in the collection of the descendants of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, one of the artist’s earliest patrons at Bath. Prior to the transformative recent cleaning, and working from old photographs, Hayes believed that the present picture was a copy of that work. However, Hugh Belsey, author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Gainsborough’s portraits, has confirmed the attribution to Gainsborough, and, on the basis of a transparency, has suggested that the present example is probably the primary work, whilst that catalogued by Hayes is a more considered second version.

The present work is more spontaneous than the Prior Park picture, and tellingly varies from the other version in details such as the lack of reeds at the front edge of the pond in the foreground. Other changes are noticeable, such as the course of the path, the placing of the figure, and details on the tree trunk and foliage. It is certainly possible, therefore, that Gainsborough gave the second, more worked up attempt to his patron, which in turn may account for Hayes’ note that the handling of the Prior Park version was a little ‘dull’.

Gainsborough’s move to Bath in late 1758 gave rise to remarkable developments in his landscape technique. There was first, and most obviously, a far greater variety of landscape around Bath, which, in its rolling, monumental forms was far more exciting to than the relative calm of Suffolk. Second, he benefited from greater exposure to works by Old Masters, particularly those by Rubens and Van Dyck at Wilton. In less fashionable Suffolk he had mainly depended on the Dutch seventeenth century landscapes favoured by the East Anglian middle classes. Finally, Gainsborough’s temperament and approach towards landscapes altered.

In a word, Gainsborough became more introverted – his landscape paintings, though influenced by the dramatic scenery around him, which he primarily documented in drawings and watercolours, became ever more idealised. Indeed, it is during his time at Bath that we find him eschewing a commission from Lord Hardwicke to paint a certain topographical scene, on the grounds that the spot in question was not picturesque enough. As we see increasingly in Gainsborough’s landscapes, his scenes were not considered complete unless they contained the full complement of water, dramatic sky, a cottage, the omnipresent ancient and half-dead tree, and usually, for good measure, an animal or two. He began to create such scenes with models in his studio, late at night after the rigours of so many portrait commissions per day, with the arranged compositions ‘mostly executed by Candle Light’, according to Ozias Humphry, and presumably, at this stage, alone.

Such influences can all be seen in the present picture. One first notices how the scene is vividly lit from within. The setting sun creates stark shadows onto the tree at right, but lights up the foliage on the trees on the left, an effect created by allowing the warm, light-brown ground layer to shine through the green paint of the foliage. This effect may well have been enhanced by the introduction of ground glass, or a similar medium, that he was known to have experimented with. Here, the light is allowed to spill onto the picture’s highlights, and thus effortlessly draws our eye to small details such as the cottage, the figure and the pool of water. We can see also the arrival of Gainsborough’s increasingly feathery technique, with the use of short, sharp brushtrokes, most noticeably in the trees in the middle of the composition and the path in the foreground. The leaves of the trees to the left of the picture, however, seem to be painted with a greater degree of individual detail, more akin to his earlier, Suffolk period landscapes. As a result, the present work is a useful and rare example of Gainsborough’s approach to landscape painting at a crucial stage in his career.
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