Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A Landscape, traditionally identified as a View Outside Sudbury 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

A Landscape, traditionally identified as a View Outside Sudbury, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
15 ½ x 19 ¼ inches, 39.4 x 48.9 cm
Estate of Barbara Green, Massachusetts, USA.
To view works by Thomas Gainsborough for sale please go to www.philipmould.com.

This small landscape is evidence of the prodigious talent of one of England’s greatest artists, Thomas Gainsborough. The scene, which is typical of Gainsborough’s early landscapes, is most likely of the Suffolk countryside outside his hometown of Sudbury, and would have been painted in the mid-1740s. In 1740 Gainsborough, when just thirteen years old, had left Sudbury for London, where he studied under the famous French draughtsman, Hubert Gravelot, and the portraitist Francis Hayman. However, throughout the mid-1740s Gainsborough would periodically return to Suffolk, partly in the hope of seeking commissions from local patrons. Such commissions would include subjects as varied as small portraits of dogs, for example, ‘Bumper’ [Private Collection, 1745], to small Dutch-style landscapes of the type seen here.

Despite his various apprenticeships in London, Gainsborough’s talent for landscape painting was essentially self-taught. The discovery by Philip Mould Ltd of Gainsborough’s very first attempt at ‘Cornard Wood’ (a study painted in about 1739/40 for the large painting in the National Gallery, London) gives credence to the many stories of how he would play truant from school so that he could wander the fields drawing and painting on his own. John Jackson, the portrait painter, later recorded that Gainsborough’s father once followed him, ‘suspecting that he kept idle company, but in this he was agreeably astonished, when he saw him seat himself upon the side of a bank, and begin to make a drawing’. Gainsborough himself later recalled that ‘during his Boy-hood…there was not a Picturesque clump of Trees, nor even a single Tree of beauty, no, nor hedge row…for some miles round about the place of his nativity, that he had not…perfectly in his mind’s eye.’ One account states that Gainsborough progressed to ‘painting several landscapes from the age of ten to twelve’, and while this may seem unusual today, where our desire for artistic context places so much emphasis on when and where an artist trained, in the eighteenth century it was common for young children of genius to begin a semi-commercial practice at an early age. Thomas Lawrence was selling portraits from the age of thirteen, while George Morland exhibited at the Royal Academy when he was just ten.

Like many of Gainsborough’s early landscapes, therefore, the present landscape retains something of what Gainsborough called his ‘schoolboy style’. The composition appears to be built up from a collection of small, closely observed areas that are then placed within a larger scene. For example, the corn field and lake at the middle right-hand side of the canvas could form a picture in their own right, and are so minutely observed that they seem independent of the clump of trees in the centre, and are treated with more care than the somewhat cursorily painted clump of wood in the foreground. The most famous example of this approach is of course the final version of Cornard Wood at the National Gallery (his largest early landscape), in which many of the techniques, such as the sharply contrasting light on the trees through to the delicate foliage, can already be seen in the present, slightly earlier picture.

As is always the case with Gainsborough’s landscapes, even in those painted towards the very end of his career, the emphasis is on the fall of light across the scenery. Here, a late afternoon sun strongly illuminates the various details Gainsborough has chosen to pick out as he leads the viewer’s eye through the composition, from the back of the countryman’s shirt and legs in the foreground, to the highlights on either side of the winding road, and, finally, the silhouette of the mounted rider disappearing over the crest of the hill past a solitary sheep. The strong evening light also allowed Gainsborough to indulge in his passion for dramatic skies and clouds, while bathing the entire scene in a warm, glowing light redolent of the landscapes of artists such as Wijnants and van Ruisdael, whose work he copied from a young age.

Gainsborough’s fondness for Dutch landscapists is revealing on two levels. The first is that it demonstrates his love of nature, for the early Dutch approach to landscape, with its careful rendering of details, textures and light, matched entirely his own desire to observe nature en plein air, as he went off wandering the fields to draw anything that caught his eye. Secondly, it reveals Gainsborough’s acute eye for what the type of art the market desired. Despite the fact that seventeenth century Dutch landscapes were dismissed in cosmopolitan circles as dull and unworthy - Horace Walpole, no less, called them ‘drudging Mimicks of Nature’ - Dutch ‘Golden Age’ landscapes were particularly popular in East Anglia, mainly due to the many trading connections built up with Low Countries from the seventeenth century. Furthermore, we know from Gainsborough’s account that his departure for London in 1740 was, at least in part, funded by the early sale of his own paintings. It is most likely, therefore, that the present painting was either commissioned by, or aimed at, the local patrons around Gainsborough’s home town.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.