My Favourite Painting: The Marquess of Cholmondeley

'It’s an image of great tenderness; Gainsborough painting for himself and his adored wife, not for a rich patron.'

The Marquess of Cholmondeley comments on Portrait of the Artist with his Wife and Daughter by Gainsborough:

‘There is a wonderful freshness to this family group. The flush of Margaret Gainsborough’s cheek, the way she leans towards her husband, while gazing into the distance.

‘The silks and velvets are so perfectly rendered and the artist’s crimson waistcoat, partially unbuttoned, draws the eye. It’s an image of great tenderness; Gainsborough painting for himself and his adored wife, not for a rich patron.

‘Yet there is a note of sadness, as little Mary was so short lived. The painting belonged to my great uncle, Sir Philip Sassoon, who had a fascination for conversation pieces, then my grandmother Sybil. It brings back childhood memories of holidays at Houghton.’

The Marquess of Cholmondeley is the owner of Houghton Hall, Norfolk

John McEwen comments on Portrait of the Artist with his Wife and Daughter:

Crucial to the date of this painting is the inclusion of the short-lived first child of the Gainsboroughs, who were married on July 15, 1746. In her superb catalogue of the National Gallery’s British School pictures, the late Judy Egerton reckoned that it was at least begun when Mary was alive (her date of birth is unrecorded, but she was buried on March 1, 1748). Egerton describes the discreet flowers held by mother and daughter as ‘grace notes’ rather than memento mori.

It is the earliest known self-portrait by the artist, probably begun before he was 21, his wife being a year or so younger. She was Margaret Burr, illegitimate daughter of the 3rd Duke of Beaufort and an unidentified woman. An annuity of £200 was settled on her for life, from the time of the Duke’s death in 1745, which gave Gains-borough welcome financial security. Even a decade later, he could only expect 15 guineas for a half-length portrait.

Yet the Gainsboroughs’ marriage also proved an unquestioned love match. Margaret saw him through many vicissitudes, including his venereal diseases and the dreadful shadow of mental instability of their subsequent two daughters. ‘I shall never be a quarter good enough for her if I mend a hundred degrees,’ he wrote after she had nursed him through a ‘fever’ brought on by a ‘foolish Act’ on a trip to London.

The relaxed pose he adopts was a legacy of his teacher, friend and sometimes co-worker, Francis Hayman, and ultimately derived from Roubiliac’s statue of Handel in Vauxhall Gardens, where his casually crossed legs symbolised the indifference of superior minds to convention. Egerton also notes ‘the touchingly inexpert way his wife’s muslin apron is tacked on to her bodice’.


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