Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Landscape with a Ruined Castle 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Landscape with a Ruined Castle, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
12 x 18 inches, 31 x 45.5 cm
Possibly, Christie’s London, 5th July 1926, lot 57, ‘A Landscape with a Ruined Castle; stormy sky’, dimensions given as 15 ½ x 20 ½ inches; bt. Leggatt for 200gns, ‘from the collection of Miss Sophia Lane, a niece of the Artist.’; With Newhouse Galleries, New York; F. Howard Walsh, Fort Worth, Texas; Walsh Family Art Trust.
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This small landscape is evidence of the prodigious talent of one of England’s greatest artists. It was probably painted in the late 1740s (though Hugh Belsey suggests between 1750-4). This newly discovered work represents an important addition to Gainsborough’s early landscapes. It allows us to see the artist developing his technique from a mastery of detail to a greater confidence in the overall composition of the work. Some of Gainsborough’s earlier landscapes, such as ‘Cornard Wood’ [National Gallery, London], and ‘Landscape with Cottage and Figures’ [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna], are occasionally criticised for their overall lack of coherence, inspired as they are by the expansive, broad compositions of the Dutch naturalists (whose direct influence can be seen here in the tree on the left).

The present picture, however, is one Gainsborough’s few early works in which the focus is topographical. Here the composition is very obviously built around a central subject, which in turn is emphatically highlighted with a strong pool of light, a common theme of the artist at this time, and seen, for example, in ‘The Charterhouse’ [Thomas Coram Foundation], and ‘Wooded Landscape with Peasants resting and Distant Cottage’ [location unknown]. The exact location of the present work has not been determined with any certainty. What was then a ruin may by now have disappeared, and while many of the architectural features betray Suffolk origins, we should not be surprised if it is in part a capriccio, for we know from two other similar scenes, ‘View of St Mary’s Church Hadleigh’ [Private Collection] and, again, ‘The Charterhouse’, that Gainsborough occasionally invented topographical details.

It is perhaps surprising that the young Gainsborough painted landscapes at all. Landscape painting was traditionally the exclusive preserve of foreign artists, and even then was considered a relatively lowly form of art. A ‘proper’ landscape picture was considered to be an idealized or thematic creation by a Claude or a Poussin. And at the time this picture was painted, there were remarkably few English artists capable of producing a landscape of quality. Horace Walpole exclaimed “in a country so profusely beautified with the amenities of nature, it is extraordinary that we have produced so few good painters of landscape”. An English patron of note would hardly dream of buying

an English landscape painting, but would turn instinctively, as fashion demanded, to continental painters (a phenomenon that led to London’s emergence in the eighteenth century as the centre of the European art market).

And so here, in the midst of this unpromising artistic environment, the young Gainsborough decided to become a landscapist, and, what is more, an effectively self-taught one. Hardly any of Gainsborough’s early landscapes were commissioned works – portraiture paid the bills – and most were simply the products of his own private pursuit, done on small portable canvasses such as the present example. Gainsborough was by nature a thoroughly independent character, as can be seen in everything from his technique, his subjects, and his career. His pictures occupy their own island of brilliance in English art. Other giants of eighteenth century English painting, such as Reynolds, Lawrence and Constable, left an artistic legacy that dominated their successors. Gainsborough did not. His entire approach to art was unique. Kenneth Clarke, when comparing Gainsborough to other landscapists such as Turner and Constable, noted that his were “unsubstantial daydreams, inspired evasions of the real problems of landscape painting.” But this was precisely the point. Gainsborough rarely saw landscape painting as a chance to document or record. Virtually all his landscapes are conscious attempts to capture not merely the topography in front of him, which, as in this example, is invariably made up to some degree, but the atmosphere of the rural idyll.

Gainsborough was among the generation that first became alarmed at the invasion of the industrial revolution into rural England. His alarm at its environmental consequences, if that term can be used outside the twentieth century, not only explains Clarke’s bewildered comment, but also the arcadian dreaminess of his paintings. Gainsborough’s later works, such as the ‘Cottage Door’, clearly demonstrate his romanticised view of rural England. And yet such sentiments can also be seen in the present, much earlier work. The theme of the picture is one of decaying grandeur. An ancient, crumbling castle, momentarily restored to glory by a shaft of sunlight, sits proudly in front of a series of later structures. In the foreground, our eye is led to an undistinguished and unconcerned countryman, dwarfed by the scale of the structure behind him, while the cloud-filled sky, painted in the artist’s familiar pale blue, enamel-like pigment, adds the sense of tranquillity that so characterises all of his landscapes.

The present picture was most recently certainly recorded in the collection of the Walsh family in the United States, having passed through the Newhouse Galleries in New York. It may be the picture of a similar description sold at Christies in 1926 described as ‘A Landscape with a Ruined Castle; stormy sky’. The present picture is smaller than the 15½ x 20½ inches described by Christies in 1926, but it does appear to have been trimmed slightly, particularly at the left hand side and top of the canvas, and it may also be relevant that the Newhouse Galleries, like many American dealers handling English pictures before the war, are known to have cut down or altered pictures without compunction. John Hayes, in his catalogue The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough (New York 1982, p.64), also notes a picture sold in 1762 from the collection of Ebenezer Tull described as ‘A view of an old Castle in Suffolk’ (30th April and 1st May 1762, 1st day, lot 26).

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