Book Review: Gainsborough at Gainsborough’s House

Thomas Gainsborough is enjoying an unprecedented Renaissance this winter. The largest-ever international exhibition of his work opens at Tate Britain on October 24 and, hot on the heels of the Tate’s show, comes Gainsborough Pop-three centuries of Gainsborough-inspired objects – which will take place from November 2 at Gainsborough’s House, in Sudbury, Suffolk.

‘It’s really the Tate exhibition that has prompted this revival,’ says Gainsborough’s House’s curator, Hugh Belsey, ‘and they organised it because it’s over twenty years since there was an exhibition on Gainsborough. Most other major British artists have had a show in recent years, so it was really only Gainsborough that was missing. Now it is his turn.’

Coinciding with both exhibitions is the publication of Mr Belsey’s Gainsborough at Gainsborough’s House, the first book to catalogue the treasures of the Gainsborough’s House museum, which is situated in the building where the Suffolk painter spent his childhood.

Gainsborough’s House opened to the public in 1961, and Mr Belsey, who has been curator for the last twenty-one years, has been instrumental in forming what is now the world’s largest collection of Gainsborough works and memorabilia.

His book, which describes how the museum started and grew during the years, represents ‘a real opportunity to assess what we collected so far and share the information we have about it.’

It discusses eighty of Gainsborough’s House’s best pieces, including some objects which had never been illustrated before. To the layman, it shows beyond any doubt that there is more to Gainsborough than the portraits of ‘half a dozen beautiful women’, reasserting him as a painter as much at ease with landscapes as he was with people.

But Gainsborough at Gainsborough’s Housealso sets out to ‘make a worthwhile contribution’ to Gainsborough studies. Prints by artists such as Claude Lorraine and James Mason are featured in the book to help place the Suffolk painter’s work into context. ‘There’s this perception of Gainsborough as an artist operating in a vacuum,’ says Mr Belsey, ‘but he borrowed from a lot of 17th century artists and prints of the time.’

And seeing Gainsborough’sWooded landscape with buildings, lake and rowing boatprinted alongside James Mason’s Landscape with fishermen clarifies just how much painters ‘borrowed’ from one another in the blessed days which preceded the enforcement of the Intellectual Property Act. By the time Thomas Rowlandson got down to paint his ownWooded landscape with buildings, lake and rowing boat (after Thomas Gainsborough), which is also illustrated in the book, the subject had already been plagiarised twice (Rowlandson copied Gainsborough, who copied Mason, who, in turn, had copied Filippo Lauri).

The eighty pieces featured inGainsborough at Gainsborough’s Housewill be on display at Thos Agnew and Sons in London from January 2003 . Hopefully, both the book and the forthcoming exhibition will help raise awareness of Gainsborough’s House and the crucial contribution it makes to Sudbury’s intellectual life.

Like other small country museums, Gainsborough’s House helps revitalise high culture in the countryside , making Britain less city-centric. It was this very reason which prompted an anonymous donor to give the museum a Canaletto to ‘swap for a Gainsborough’ in 1988. Although his munificence may also have been motivated by a desire to avoid paying capital tax, the donor insisted that his aim was to bring works of art back to Suffolk because he felt that ‘London had too much’. The sale of the Canaletto in 1989 yielded some £869,000, allowing the museum to build a solid acquisition fund, with which it has now developed a collection of over 2,000 pieces.

Perhaps more importantly, Gainsborough’s House also plays a fundamental role in the local community. ‘This is not a fossilised institution,’ says Stefan Kosciuszko, who livesat nearby Grade I-listed Abbas Hall, from where Gainsborough painted his view of Cornard Wood. Not only does the museum provide a focus for its eight hundred Friends and volunteers. Not only does it generate interest in Gainsborough Country. Through Gainsborough House, Sudbury attracts contemporary art exhibitions and events, which are rarely seen in towns of its size. Not to mention the fish and chips party to celebrate the opening of Gainsborough Pop, which everyone in Sudbury is looking forward to.

It is therefore no shame to Mr Belsey thatGainsborough at Gainsborough’s Housepays as much tribute to Gainsborough’s art as to the ‘grit and determination’ of this small, independent museum and the people who make it work everyday. They amply deserve it.