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Thomas Gainsborough, the painter of Tory England (#ABC17)

Today’s topic for the April Blogging Challenge is our favourite artist and favourite work of art from said artist. I couldn’t miss on the chance to put a click-bait title. In fact, the title isn’t as much mine as it was the thesis behind a BBC 4 documentary presented by Dr James Fox, or, if you are bad at remembering names, “The Handsome One”, on the topic of 18th British art which I’m sure I saw when it came out but I can’t find anywhere now. I didn’t just dream of it, I promise you.

Anyway, many years ago now, I went to the Tate Britain with my aunt. Now, for those of you who never heard anything about my aunt, she is Italian and a graduate of the Academy of Fine Art in Brera (Milan). When I was little, she had this idea that dragging a child to sightsee Renaissance paintings in churches is entertaining them. She is almost single-handedly responsible for turning me into an annoying smug know-it-all (like a mini-version of herself). She knows pretty much everything there is to know on Italian art, but the has the typical Italian bias of thinking nothing exists beyond what they did because at some point in time all the greatest artists were from Italian City States, and after that everybody who knew how to paint knew it because they copied the Italians.
As the anglophile I am, I obviously knew a lot more about British painters than she knew, so it was kind of a revenge for 23 years of being patronised like I’m not smart enough to learn things from hearing it or reading it in a book (you know, the things you do in school since I was receiving an education…) so I need to be told the same thing over and over because only she is invested with divinely revealed knowledge and the ability to hold on to that knowledge…so it was really nice for once to hear the words “I don’t really know much about this” when she couldn’t even name anyone other than tentatively Turner, and I was going around pontificating with a spring in my step being for once, in her presence, the one who knew things.

There are two main reasons why I love British painters of the 18th century: a) I am obsessed with the 18th century in general and b) I love how they all focus so much on landscapes because they are absolutely beautiful. Which brings us to why I love Gainsborough in particular when I also like very much Turner and his paintings of the sea, and the nice little idylls of Constable. I just love the way in which in the 1770s and 1780s he started to incorporate portraits in his amazing, realistic and wild landscapes.
My favourite painting, who famously is one I would love to replicate in my engagement pictures if I can ever manage to not only convince someone to marry me, but also to wear stockings and a wig, is “The Morning Walk”, or the painting of Mrs and Mr William Hallet, held and recently restored after an attack at the National Gallery. It was painted in 1785, when my most dearly beloved William Pitt the Younger was PM.
It’s a posed portrait, of course, but what I really like about it is the nonchalance of the whole setting, and the carefully studied impression of naturalism created by painting it like a candid picture of a normal day out in the beautiful surroundings. He was dressed in his finest but slightly undressed in a manner that conveys familiarity and intimacy. I love that they are painted looking in the same direction, sharing a moment together in the way they will be sharing a life together very soon (they were only engaged at the time of sitting but were married by the time of completion)…I like to think of them as being a rare couple who married for affection, and imagine their back stories. The painting was sold on her death, which is quite common if you either hate the painting and your wife forced it on you or if you loved the person and can’t bear to see the painting of the happiest time of your life, when marrying them, after losing them.

I love Gainsborough’s late style in the strokes he uses especially in the wilderness, but also the lightness of the dress she is wearing and the realism of the dog. Constable is reported to have said of the poetic quality of his paintings: “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.” It’s like looking into a dream. And in a sense, for me, looking at the countryside untouched by technology and powdered wigs, is in itself a dream. I’m a big fan of the romantics despite what I found to be the wrong criticism of the Augustan poets (which I understand in the form of younger generations not seeing the work of previous generations through eyes either than their own, and obviously thinking their generation is the only one who has ever felt an emotion), and I find Gainsborough’s paintings to encapsulate a lot of the romantic spirit. Another painting I really love is the Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog. Unlike my favourite historical paintings (The execution of Lady Jane Grey and Napoleon Crossing the Alps), they have a quality that is very much about awe of the natural world as it is (the English style of garden en vogue at the time was curated wilderness), even if not as heavily as Turner’s. As an INFP, I’m very much in tune with the emphasis on intuition and emotions in Romanticism, so I couldn’t but love a dreamy portrait in a dark green forest with all the possible stories hidden in it.

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