It is a curious fact that the English painters who fell most powerfully under Van Dyck’s influence where also child prodigies. Thomas Gainsborough showed enough talent and motivation to begin his apprenticeship at 13, and he was already receiving independent commissions by the age of 18!
Born in Suffolk, Gainsborough moved to Bath, where he became a highly fashionable portraitist. In 1774 he again relocated to London, where the royal family was among his patrons.
Gainsborough was among the founding members of the Royal Academy when it was set up in London in 1768. This was a landmark date, because British artists from that time on were assured of high-quality professional training, exhibition opportunities and greatly improved prospects for gaining a livelihood.
Gainsborough, along with Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence whose portraits also appear in this room, became one of the most sought-after and well-paid portrait painters in England. His superior social position opened the worlds of wealth, power, culture and fashion to him.
Sarah Siddons was the most celebrated actress on the London stage, made famous by the tragic roles she played. Gainsborough painted her at the height of her fame. This portrait was painted during her third London season in the winter of 1784–85. Sarah was born into a theatrical family – four of her brothers were actors – and, in 1773, she married the actor William Siddons. Interestingly her first performances at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden were not successful. She only returned to perform in London the year before this portrait was painted.
Reynolds and Lawrence also painted portraits of Siddons, although Gainsborough’s portrait is deservedly the best known. Most portraits show her acting, but Gainsborough depicted her off‑stage in contemporary dress.
So much of the impact of this painting comes from her ostentatiously fashionable clothes. The National Gallery, London’s curator Dr Susan Foister has analysed the subject’s impressive get-up: “Mrs Siddons wears the fashions of the day. She has a black beaver hat trimmed with ribbon and ostrich feathers and wears a blue and white striped ‘wrapping gown’, perhaps a practical garment for an actress frequently changing costumes. She holds a large fox-fur muff and the same tawny fur edges her yellow silk cloak. She has a black choker and her hair is powdered fashionably grey.”
As well as portraits and conversation pieces, Gainsborough painted numerous landscapes; in later life, he expressed regret that he could not make a living from the latter alone. You will find a landscape by Gainsborough further on in our exhibition in the gallery devoted to ‘Landscape and the picturesque’.
When you have finished looking at all the paintings in this room please move through to The Grand Tour to continue your audio tour.