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How theatre made Thomas Gainsborough a ‘most faithful disciple of Nature’

a painting of a seated female in eighteenth century gown and hat

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs Siddons, 1785 © The National Gallery, London

The Holburne Museum in Bath explores the influence of theatre and performance on the life and work of Thomas Gainsborough

When Thomas Gainsborough was finally granted a sitting with the famous actress Sarah Siddons in 1785, such was her dedication to treading the boards that she granted the eminent portraitist just a single sitting to capture her famed beauty and poise.

From the single drawing Gainsborough managed to produce from the sitting, he worked a brilliantly idealized portrait of the busy actress, which many now consider to be his masterpiece.

Unlike his many other portraits of actors, playwrights and impresarios he chose to paint Siddons not as an actress but as a woman about town wearing a blue striped, wrap around gown called a levite and a fox fur. Both were the height of fashion in the late eighteenth century.

Like many of his peers, Gainsborough was captivated by the theatre and 15 of his finest oil portraits of leading actors, managers, musicians, playwrights, designers, dancers and critics of the 1760s-80s are featured in this Holburne exhibition, which also includes works on paper (including satires, views of theatres and playbills) and ephemera from public and private collections across the UK.

a painted portrait of a pasty looking chap with swept back grey hair and ruffled collar and wide lapelled coat

Marie Jean Augustin Vestris, Thomas Gainsborough c.1781-2. © Tate London

a photo of a person silk plus fours striking a pose on a stage

Nathaniel Dance-Holland, “True, but every goose can…”. A caricature of Marie-Auguste Vestris, the Dancer. (British, 1735-1811). © Fitzwilliam Museum

Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, theatre became an increasingly popular pastime and by Gainsborough’s time, existing playhouses had been enlarged and others newly commissioned throughout London and the provinces – particularly in Bath, where the Holburne Museum is located and where the artist lived with his family from 1759 to 1774.

A significant part of the exhibition is devoted to the locations and theatres with which Gainsborough was linked, from Bath’s own Orchard Street Theatre to the London theatre synonymous with the actor David Garrick in Drury Lane.

As well as an expansion in theatres, this was the era of the emergence of a new breed of actor, who brought a fresh naturalism to the stage. Gainsborough’s arrival in the West Country coincided with the rising wealth and social status of leading actors, such as James Quin and Garrick, both of whom he painted.

His friendship with the pair opened more doors for him, both in Bath and then later in London and the two actors also enabled Gainsborough to explore naturalism in portraiture, just as they and their contemporaries were turning to less artificial forms of performance in theatre, music and dance. Garrick in particular brought a new naturalism to the stage and championed Shakespeare – even performing Hamlet in modern dress.

The artistic naturalism championed by Garrick’s performances were mirrored by Gainsborough’s brush, prompting the artist to be dubbed ‘the most faithful disciple of Nature that ever painted’. While in his letters, Garrick deplored the affectations of provincial players: ‘Strutting, bouncing & mouthing’ in a style he considered a century out of date.

a painted portrait of a man with powdered wig

Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Linley the elder, c. 1770, oil on canvas. By Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Alongside Garrick and Siddons, visitors will encounter the Haymarket Theatre’s manager George Colman (c.1778, National Portrait Gallery), the scenographer Philip James de Loutherbourg (1778, Dulwich Picture Gallery), the French ballet star Auguste Vestris (c.1781, Tate, right) and the castrato singer Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci (c.1777, Barber Institute).

Thomas Linley (c.1771, Dulwich Picture Gallery) a music teacher, performer and composer, directed a series of concerts at the Assembly Rooms in Bath and went on to became part-owner and musical director of the Drury Lane Theatre.

What emerges in these portraits is a marked informality, as they were often used for public exhibition, not only to promote the sitter but also the artist. Many of them date from the 1770s when Gainsborough’s studio was relatively quiet and the artist needed to find alternative ways to advertise his work.

“Theatre influenced the artistic development of this most quintessentially English artist”

Gainsborough’s links to the theatre were not limited to portraiture, in 1778 the artist was also contributed to the refurbishment of the interior of the Italian Opera House (the King’s Theatre) in London, under the supervision of the architect Robert Adam. The Morning Chronicle of 25 November 1778 reported that ‘The sides of the frontispiece are decorated with two figures painted by Gainsborough, which are remarkably picturesque and beautiful …’.

So although Gainsborough is intimately linked to the stage through his portraits and his friendships with actors, promoters and even the men who wrote for and about the theatre in Bath and London, the influence of the theatre and performance runs much deeper.

Theatre not only helped bolster Gainsborough’s prosperity, but it also seemingly influenced the artistic development of this most quintessentially English artist.

a painted portrait of a man in a Georgian style wig

Thomas Gainsborough, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, c. 1777-78. By permission of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Gainsborough & the Theatre is at the Holburne Museum in Bath from October 5 2018 to January 20 2019.

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Holburne Museum

Bath, Somerset

This jewel in Bath's crown was once the Georgian Sydney Hotel, whose glittering society Jane Austen watched from her house opposite. It displays the treasures collected by Sir William Holburne: superb English and continental silver, porcelain, maiolica, glass and Renaissance bronzes. The Picture Gallery contains works by Turner, Guardi, Stubbs…

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