Historical Portraits Picture Archive

View of Ipswich from Christchurch Park c.1746-9

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

View of Ipswich from Christchurch Park, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
27 x 35 1/4 inches
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The rediscovery of Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘View of Ipswich’ not only affords us a vivid and rare example of his topographical landscape painting, but allows to us reappraise the artist’s early career in Suffolk. The view shown in the picture is taken from the park of Christchurch Mansion. The back of the house can be seen alongside the round lake, both of which survive today, while the edge of the park is delineated by a brick wall running across the painting. Above the house to the left the river Orwell can be seen winding towards the sea. The four churches in the view are not immediately identifiable, as the artist appears to have ‘moved’ them to fit his view and ensure that the setting sun catches the face of the towers. Looking principally at the architectural features and geographic locations the churches would appear to be, from left; St Peter’s (in the distance by the river), St Stephen’s (with the shorter tower), St Lawrence’s (the tallest tower), and St Mary le Tower (prior to the erection of a spire in the 1860s). All of the churches have since suffered from Victorian ‘restorations’ and it may not be possible to identify them with certainty today.

Conservation and further research by this gallery has established that this view is one of a handful of identified topographical paintings by Gainsborough. It is stylistically datable to between 1746-9, and so may further show that Gainsborough was busy practising in Suffolk before the traditionally assumed departure from London in 1748.

A detailed provenance of the work has been established, stretching back to the early nineteenth century. First, an early sale reference was discovered in a catalogue for Evans auctioneers at 93 Pall Mall, London, for a sale held on 27 March 1824 (lot 378). There, a picture catalogued as by Gainsborough and described as “View of Ipswich from Christ Church Park. A fine performance” was sold from the collection of the late George Nassau, a description that accords well with the setting of the present view of Ipswich. George Richard Savage Nassau (1756-1823) was an avid book and art collector with a particular interest in the history of Suffolk. His father, The Hon. Richard Savage Nassau MP (1723-1780) lived at Easton just outside Ipswich, and was a patron of Gainsborough’s, sitting to him in the late 1750s [National Trust for Scotland] for a picture that may contain a landscape by Gainsborough in the background.

The Nassau’s evidently had impeccable Gainsborough credentials, and there is no reason not to take at face value the attribution in George Nassau’s 1824 sale catalogue. Moreover, the ‘View of Ipswich from Christchurch Park’ was one of four paintings by Gainsborough in the same sale, which also included a large number of Gainsborough drawings. Many of these drawings appear to be works dating from much later in Gainsborough’s career, indicating that Nassau, in addition to possibly inheriting works by Gainsborough from his father, was a regular collector of Gainsborough’s work in his own right. Further proof that the picture sold from Nassau’s estate in 1824 is in fact the present painting is the fact that a watercolour version of ‘View of Ipswich’ by Paul Sandby (Norwich Castle Museum) also belonged to Nassau, and was sold in the same sale (lot 303). It is possible that Nassau, with his interest in both watercolours and Suffolk topography, commissioned Sandby to make a version of Gainsborough’s picture.

It has not been possible to point to an earlier recorded history of the picture, and the presumption is that it had been in the Nassau collection from well into the eighteenth century. There is, however, one possible clue as to the picture’s origins. It lies in the curious depiction of the back of Christchurch mansion, which, as we have seen, was the home of the Fonnereau family. Although any financial link between Claude Fonnereau the elder and the young Gainsborough can now be ruled out, we do know from another source, William Windham, the politician, that Gainsborough’s ‘earliest supporter’ was a ‘Mr. Fonnereau’, who lent him £300. The story then goes that Gainsborough, despite the loan, voted against ‘his patron’s interest in a Parliamentary election’, and as a result deliberately intoxicated himself so that ‘he might not relent of his ingratitude’. Whitley, who first recorded this story, was sceptical of Windham’s tale. Nonetheless, this ‘Mr Fonnereau’ was Thomas Fonnereau, who owned Christchurch Mansion, and was elected MP for Sudbury, a borough he controlled, in the elections of 1741, 1747, and 1754. For the story to ring true, Gainsborough must have omitted to vote in the 1754 election – since he would almost certainly have been too young in 1747 – but by then he was permanently a resident in Ipswich. Whilst Windham’s story about voting is may be untrue, it is still worth noting the claim that Thomas Fonnereau was one of Gainsborough’s earliest supporters in light of the dominant presence of his house in what must rank as one of Gainsborough’s earliest sizeable commissions.

The picture’s later provenance demonstrates how it lost the identity of both its subject and artist. At the Nassau sale, the picture was bought, for the considerable sum of £43.1, by Michael Mucklow Zachary, another well known collector, some of whose works can today be found in the National Gallery, London and the Metropolitan Museum, New York. However, at Zachary’s estate sale on 31 May 1828 at Phillips, the picture was sold as by Gainsborough, but described as ‘A View of Harwich, from the Collection of Nassau, esq.’(an easy mistake to make, either by a mis-transcription or confusing the view out to sea). Furthermore, a Christie’s stencil on the reverse of the stretcher, ‘P98’, revealed that the picture, when consigned to a sale in London on 19 July 1890, lot 56, by a Mr Selwyn-Payne of Cheltenham, was simply called ‘View of a Town’, and attributed to ‘Old Crome’ (John Crome, 1768-1821, founder of the Norwich School). Not surprisingly, the picture failed to sell. Thus we can chart the rather sad demise of one of Gainsborough’s most important, and most unusual, early landscapes.

Quite apart from the documentary evidence, there are in addition a number of obvious stylistic similarities between ‘View of Ipswich’ and other early Gainsborough works, not least the minutely observed details lower left showing a deftly lit sandy bank with sheep. This little scene is in itself enough to form a ‘Gainsborough landscape’, and is comparable to the presentation of the sheep in his c.1748 ‘Wooded Landscape with reclining Shepherd, Scattered Sheep and Cottage’ at the Yale Center for British Art, which in turn shares a similar treatment to the sky in ‘View of Ipswich’, with its creamy impasto in the clouds. All of these pictures share a markedly looser handling of the paint, particularly in areas such as the foliage, than those landscapes Gainsborough painted in the mid 1740s, and present us with Gainsborough’s growing confidence in painting, typified by such rapidly observed details, as his technique evolved in the later 1740s. ‘View of Ipswich’ can therefore be dated to between c.1746/9.

The most obvious link between ‘View of Ipswich’ and another of Gainsborough’s works is the pencil study for the two figures in the Louvre, which was dated by John Hayes to the mid to later 1740s. In the finished painting, Gainsborough has carefully altered the figures from the drawing, most notably to take account of the raised vantage point from the steep hill in Christchurch Park from which he must have painted the picture. And whereas in the drawing the man’s hand does not grasp his companion’s waist, he clearly does in the painting, introducing an important change which sets the tone for the couple’s relationship and determines the whole character of the painting in a thoroughly Rococo manner.

Intriguingly, the drawing in the Louvre has been given a number of tentative identifications by scholars. John Hayes, in his catalogue of Gainsborough’s drawings, suggested that the figures were possibly the artist and his wife, on the basis of another tentatively identified early double portrait, also in the Louvre. Stranger still is the later inscription on the drawing that the couple represents ‘Paul Sandby and his wife’, which cannot be correct as Sandby did not marry until 1757, but is nevertheless curious given the evident link between Gainsborough and Sandby in the finished painting of Ipswich.

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