Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mr Philip Ditcher (d.1781), 1774-9 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (172788)

Portrait of Mr Philip Ditcher (d.1781), 1774-9, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 in (127 x 101.2 cm)
By descent to the sitter''s youngest daughter Mary (1769-1849), who married Rev. Kenrick Peck; her grandson Philip William Richardson Peck, 2 Morton Crescent, Exmouth, by 1886; Major-General HR Peck, 4 Crescent Mansions, London, by 1933; By descent
MS letter from Gainsborough to Mary Ditcher, Bath 31st July 1779 Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol. XVIII, 1886, ''Seventh report of the Committee on Works of Art in Devonshire'', ed. R Dymond, pp.111-2 EK Waterhouse, ''Preliminary check list of portraits by Thomas Gainsborough'', Walpole Society, vol. XXXIII, 1948-50, pp.29 and 124 Elis Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, p.63, no.196 The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, ed. John Hayes, London 2001, p.141 Susan Sloman, Gainsborough in Bath, New Haven and London 2002, pp.109-110, illus.
City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1903, no.17, illus. Holburne and Menstrie Museum, Bath, c.1960s-70s
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This sensitive portrait of the Bath surgeon and apothecary Philip Ditcher descended in the possession of his family until 2004. It was begun in 1774, the year that Gainsborough left Bath for London, but not finished until 1779. A letter from Gainsborough to Mrs Ditcher at Landsdown Road, Bath, dated 31st July 1779, which remains with the painting, states ''I am very glad the Picture arrived Safe, and meets with your approbation with regard to the Price of the Picture + Frame I must acknowledge myself over paid abundantly by my worthy Friends attention to my Family while we lived at Bath''. Gainsborough was frequently dilatory in completing portraits of friends; he took eight years (1763-71) to paint Mrs James Unwin, the ravishing wife of his banker and one of his closest friends.

The portrait of Philip Ditcher was probably spurred by Ditcher's election as Mayor of Bath in 1774. However, Gainsborough chooses to show him as an intellectual and a man of feeling rather than a civic grandee. He walks through a landscape of shimmering foliage, eyes raised, lost in thought. The subtle, russet brown of his coat tones with the autumnal shades of the leaves and contrasts with Ditcher's freely-painted, immaculate white shift cuffs and his neat bob wig, a symbol of his medical calling. The head and wig are finely modelled in short, darting strokes which give the impression of light playing on living, breathing flesh.

As Dr Susan Sloman has shown in her excellent Gainsborough in Bath (New Haven and London 2002), medical men were among the professional elite of a spa city where people flocked for improvement of health as well as pleasure. Mr Ditcher is depicted with a gentle and sympathetic air, as a man of science in harmony with nature. His abstracted, visionary gaze may be compared to Gainsborough's famous portrait of his future son-in-law Johann Christian Fischer composing, painted in 1774, the year that the Ditcher portrait was begun. Gainsborough also painted two leading Bath physicians, Doctor Rice Charlton, 1763-4 (Holburne Museum of Art, Bath; illus. Sloman p.108) and Doctor Ralph Schomberg, circa 1770 (National Gallery, London; illus. in colour Sloman p.109) strolling in the Somerset countryside which embowered Bath.

Philip Ditcher was one of the success stories of the city. He started life as an apothecary, a profession learned through apprenticeship and on a lower rung of the medical ladder than physician, which required a degree and attracted the all-important title ''Doctor''. In 1744 he was elected one of the surgeons of the Mineral Hospital in Bath, an appointment which he held until his death. At Fulham on 6th September 1757 Ditcher married Mary (known as Polly), eldest daughter of the printer and author Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), who had shot to fame with his novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748). Mrs Richardson was the sister of the Bath bookseller James Leake and the introduction was effected by her nephew (TC Duncan Eaves and Ben D Kimpel, Samuel Richardson: a Biography, Oxford 1971, p.476). Ditcher, who had an income of 300 and an estate of over 100 a year, irritated Richardson by asking for a dowry of 3,000. Weeks of wrangling followed and Richardson feared that Ditcher was too grasping and hard-headed for his ''goodnatur'd, honest hearted Girl'' (quoted in Eaves, op. cit., p.476). However, the marriage proved happy. By early 1758 Richardson was writing: ''I have from every Mouth of my Girl's Happiness, & y Man's Behaviour to her, & good Character'' (ibid., p.480). Bolstered by his own skills and his wife's money, Ditcher's practice prospered and in 1774 he was elected Mayor of Bath. He died in the city on 10th January 1781. The Ditchers had five children. Gainsborough's painting descended in the family of their youngest daughter Mary, who married Rev. Kenrick Peck.

Gainsborough's short, affectionate letter to Mrs Ditcher suggests that there was genuine friendship between the Gainsboroughs and the Ditchers rather than a mere relationship between medical man and patients. Gainsborough's portraits of friends always have an extra quality of sympathetic engagement. He supplied picture, frame and carriage costs from London to Bath as a present to the Ditchers. According to Jacob Simon of the National Portrait Gallery, London, it is likely that the carved Maratta frame presently on the portrait, which accords with the fashion of 1779, is Gainsborough's original.
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