In light of the recent Gainsborough exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, I looked back at one of my father’s essays on the subject. This one first published in 1980 goes into the historic feuds and repercussions of this work that was causing rifts within the art world and British society throughout the last century. My father talks about his conflicts with other critics playing out as a way to articulate his own connection to the work, though there is a social relevance which explains ourselves in relation to this time and what it means for us today, his connection to the work was to attempt an emotional engagement with each individual painting, that was more personal and less theoretical. Though in choosing this artist in particular he is setting up a lineage for contemporary British painters to express themselves, as part of a movement that has its tendrils in tradition, as appose to the more conceptual Damien Hirst et al.
The Naked Artist: Gainsborough & Sociology, 1980
Essay by Peter Fuller - Art by Thomas Gainsborough
Ten years ago, Professor Lawrence Gowing of the Slade clashed with John Berger over Gainsborough’s extraordinary early painting, Mr and Mrs Andrews. Their exchanges are documented in Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Gowing suggested that Mr and Mrs Andrews were engaged in philosophic enjoyment of ‘the great Principle . . . the genuine Light of uncorrupted and unperverted Nature.’ Berger did not deny this was possible, but he insisted the Andrews were also proud landowners at a time when a peasant could be whipped for stealing a potato. Among the pleasures the portrait gave the Andrews’ was that of seeing themselves depicted as landowners. This pleasure, Berger argued, was enhanced ‘by the ability of oil paint to render their land in all its substantiality.’ Berger reproduced details of the Andrews’ faces. These dramatically revealed that Gainsborough had captured the proprietorial expressions of his sitters, especially the look of arrogant contempt in the woman’s eyes. Anyone who claimed the couple was taking pure, philosophic enjoyment in ‘unperverted Nature’ was clearly deluding himself. At the time, I thought Berger had won the exchange, game, set and match. But, over the last ten years, Mr and Mrs Andrews have continued to fascinate me. And I have begun to wonder whether Berger wasn’t serving from the wrong court.
During the last decade, there have been some marvellous landscape exhibitions. In 1973, there was ‘Landscape in Britain, c. 1750-1850’ at the Tate; then came the great Turner show of 1974, and the Constable exhibition of 1976. The Tate also had a Gainsborough exhibition in 1980. In fact, this was not as well done as the others. There were too many omissions of key works. It is all very well for John Hayes, the organizer, to claim that Gainsboroughs in collections all over London comprise ‘an indispensable part of the exhibition’, but he did not give visitors a rebate on the admission charge in respect of the bus fares needed to get round his show. It would have been better if more of Gainsborough’s major works had been brought together in the same place at the same time.
But I do not wish to labour the inadequacies of exhibition here. I am more concerned with the critical response these shows evoked. Now Berger’s comments were made before this great series began: they involved fresh and original insights. He has pointed out that his observation needed to be made ‘because the cultural history we are normally taught pretends that it is an unworthy one.’ But times change. Today, even populist critics tend to argue that the social relations purportedly manifested or denied in the subject matter of a picture can easily be transmuted into a qualitative judgement.
For example, in 1976, Richard Cork, a weather-vane critic, argued in the Evening Standard that Constable was a bad painter because he reduced the rural poor to ‘freely applied wriggles of paint—little more than formal devices to help him compose satisfactorily.’ A year later, Cork wrote that in The Haymakers and The Reapers, Stubbs showed his willingness to deal ‘seriously, carefully and clearly with people so bucolic that their mundane character had to be dressed up by all other artists who depicted them in eighteenth century England.’ In fact, no one dressed up the peasants more than Stubbs; but since Cork could not allow that anything except a crude social naturalism directed towards the poor could lead to good painting, he just failed to see that these fine works were contrived, Arcadian compositions.
There is no shortage of such muddled argument. John Barrell has published a book, The Dark Side of the Landscape, in which Gainsborough’s later works are attacked for attempting to assimilate the image of the toiling peasant into a pastoral idyll belonging to an earlier age. All that Barrell can see in these works is ‘what the polite wished to believe about the society of the countryside and the condition of the poor, whether that wish was conscious or not. ’ And so Barrell prefers the tiresome genre painter, George Morland, to Gainsborough, and praises Morland’s ‘social and ideological independence’ and his supposed ability to produce more ‘actualized’ images of the rural poor.
Now I do not wish to tar Berger with Barrell. Indeed, it was in a review of the latter’s book that Berger asked, ‘Poussin relayed an aristocratic arcadianism, yes, but why was he a greater painter than any considered here?’ All the sociological landscape critics should be asked this. But the question, of course, must raise doubts about Berger’s own earlier comments on Gainsborough. If Poussin is so much greater a painter than Morland (as of course he is) then why was it so important to insist upon the tainted social and ideological character of the Andrews? How can that help us to appreciate or evaluate the painting?
I do not think one can say much about the value of a painting by talking about the ideology, or social relations, of its subjects alone. Such information may be interesting, and help to set a certain context for viewing, but discussions of ideology in painting only make sense if one also asks questions about the material skills of the painter, his relationship to the pictorial tradition, and the nature of his imaginative vision.
Gainsborough’s material skills as a painter can hardly be doubted: he was a dazzling virtuoso. For example, he was a master of physiognomic expression. You can see this best in the great series of Bath society portraits he produced between 1759 and 1774. They are magnificent, not least for the look of ageing pride in the face of the Duchess of Montagu, the aimiable disdain of General James Johnston, or the pulsating sensuality of Mary, Duchess of Richmond.
But Gainsborough was the master, and indeed often the originator of other kinds of expressive skill, too. He did not just accept the pictorial conventions he inherited. His best works show a new relish for the sensuality of the medium itself, and for its capacity to be expressive through the very brushstrokes themselves of the experience of the effects of light on drapery, flesh and foliage. I know of nothing to suggest that Ann Ford was other than a conforming member of her class: but, once that has been said, why should it inhibit us from enjoying the astonishing way in which Gainsborough has captured the tumbling translucence of her lacey white dress? Anyone who prefers Morland to such things really has no business to be writing about painting.
But this is only half the story. Gainsborough was no intellectual: he read little, and his letters, though charming, are full of spelling mistakes. Yet it seems to me quite wrong to try to identify his view of man in nature with the ideologies prevalent in his day. Gainsborough’s greatness resides in the exceptional character of his vision, which, I believe, transcends its own time and remains radical for us today (whatever incidental ideological residues might also be imbedded within it.)
Let us go back to Mr and Mrs Andrews. One reason why this is a much better painting that anything Morland ever did is because Gainsborough has used his physiognomic skills to capture the landowners’ proprietorial expressions. And what a splendid piece of painting that landscape is! Gainsborough was only twenty when he did it, yet such was his skill that after more than two centuries the landscape seems clear, fresh, bright and new.
And, the more you look at it, the more you feel that Gainsborough did not see or depict it in the way that the Andrews surveyed it. Berger says that the way the picture is made emphasizes property: yet the dominant symbol of property for any eighteenth century landowner was undoubtedly his house. It is no accident that this can only just be glimpsed through a clump of trees. It is as if Gainsborough did not want it there at all, and, indeed, we know how, as Gainsborough’s career progressed, it became increasingly irksome to him to have to take his patrons’ point of view into account at all. Later, he was to write to a noble Lord, ‘Mr G. hopes that Lord Hardwicke will not mistake his meaning, but if his Lordship wishes to have anything tolerable of the name of Gainsborough, the subject altogether, as well as figures, etc., must be of his own brain! otherwise Lord Hardwicke will only pay for encouraging a man out of his way
This is already evident, even in his earliest paintings of aristocrats in landscape. The more you look at Mr and Mrs Andrews, the more you realize that there is a contradiction between the painting of the figures and the vision of nature. Apart from the acute (and critical) observation of facial expression, all Gainsborough’s life and energy is invested in the latter. The body of Mrs Andrews, with its tiny dangling feet, is more like that of a puppet than a person. (Gainsborough may have modelled it from a doll). The fact that she is unfinished accentuates this: in the centre of her lap, where Gainsborough (or perhaps the Andrews) intended a dead pheasant is a patch of bare canvas. This makes one feel she is not really alive: under the marvellous blue dress, there are only rods, segments, and space. Yet the landscape vibrates with life.
It is not just the figures which give rise to this sense of contradiction: so, too, does the spatial organization of the picture. The puppets do not seem to belong in this living landscape. Pictorially, they do not occupy the same space. They are displayed upon a foreground stage; only the bundles of corn, on the right, occupy the same space as they, and these appear almost like scenic props in a pantomime. Indeed, in early Gainsborough, the aristocrats never rest easily in the landscape: the picture of John Plampin of Chadacre (also in the National Gallery) is typical. He, too, is like an awkward and intrusive doll. His bottom does not even rest upon the bank on which he is supposed to be sitting . . . Thus Gainsborough expressed his sentiment (and there is no indication that it was more than that) that there was something wrong with the ‘natural’ rights these people claimed over the land.
Critics like Barrell attack Constable for developing an unrealistic ‘romantic image of harmony with nature whereby the labourers were merged as far as possible with their surroundings, too far away from us for the questions about how contented or how ragged they were to arise.’ But this ‘romantic image of harmony’ (which transcends the given social relations of the day) provides the true source of a great landscape painter’s imaginative strength. Gainsborough too was concerned to offer an imaginative vision of the world transformed.
It was not, of course, just the existing social relations which Gainsborough transcended: he may have been schooled through the observation of nature, but that which he observed, he also imaginatively transformed. (Many of his best landscapes were in fact painted from bits and pieces of twig and stone arranged on a table in his city studio.) And it is the otherness of Gainsborough which makes him a good painter. For his ‘image of harmony’ undoubtedly drew deeply upon that inner aspiration for a complete reconciliation with others and the world, which is, I believe, a potentiality of sentiment common to all who possess human being. This potentiality lies at the root of all man’s aspirations for a better world, including socialism.
Before this time, painters had used religious or classical mythology to articulate these aspirations: with secularization, the ‘raw materials’ available to them increasingly became perception, and the material processes of painting itself. Gainsborough certainly made use of these. Nonetheless, it is no accident that one of his very finest paintings is in fact a classical scene: Diana and Actaeon, in which the naked figures among the water and woods, are painted with a loving lightness of touch. The picture looks back to Poussin, and forward to those dazzling late Cezannes, in which, through his painterly forms, he articulated a new vision of man in nature. Diana and Actaeon embodies many of those qualities which I think make the pursuit of painting, and the quest of the aesthetic dimension worthwhile. And yet there isn’t an ‘actualized’ peasant in sight...