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Photograph of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788

Landscape with Figures on a Path

Price on application. Request photo file.

Oil on canvas 19½ x 23¾ inches. 1746-48

British Institution: Memorial Exhibition in honour of the late William Hogarth, Richard Wilson, Thomas Gainsborough and Johann Zoffany, London, 1814, catalogue number 22 or 38.

Hugh Belsey, ‘Thomas Gainsborough; The Portraits, Fancy Pictures and Copies after Old Masters’, Yale University Press, 2019, Grigby portrait no.422, notes, p.420.

John Harcourt Powell, Argyle Street, London, by 1814;
by descent to his son, John Harcourt Powell, Beighton, Suffolk;
by descent to his son, Thomas Harcourt Powell, Drinkstone Park, Suffolk;
Mrs. John Harcourt Powell, Drinkstone Park, 1943;
Christie’s, London, 1991;
Sotheby’s, London, 9 June 1998;
Milmo-Penny Fine Art, Dublin;
Private collection, Dublin

Landscape with Figures on a Path, a true copy after Jacob van Ruisdael (1626-1682}, is a recent discovery, which adds to the catalogue of works by Thomas Gainsborough. Historians have traditionally cited Joshua Grigby (1731-1798), Drinkstone Park, Suffolk, as the first recorded owner of the painting together with a subsequent descent through the Grigby family. However, an 1814 exhibition at the British Institution disproves this. According to the exhibition catalogue, the lender of the painting was H. Powell Esq. This reveals that the painting came to Drinkstone Park through the marriage of John Harcourt Powell to Joshua Grigby’s daughter, Lucy, in 1786.

The 1814 event was a memorial exhibition in honour of William Hogarth, Richard Wilson, Thomas Gainsborough and Johann Zoffany. At least fifty-six paintings by Gainsborough were included. All were from private collections apart from two works lent by the Royal Academy. Powell loaned numbers 22 and 38, both described in the catalogue as ‘Landscape in his early manner’. The second painting lent by Powell was the large landscape referred to below, traditionally described as a view of Drinkstone Park, and now in the Sao Paolo Museum, Brazil.

The Powell family were landowners with estates and residences in at least fifteen of the most prosperous counties, including Suffolk. It is quite likely
that John Harcourt Powell's father, Harcourt Powell, M.P. (1718-1782), commissioned the work directly from Gainsborough. The taste of the wealthy landowning class of the mid-eighteenth century was for opulent portraits. Landscapes took second place and fulfilled mostly the requirement for chimneypieces, which were usually painted in an earlier style. In East Anglia, there was a demand for Old Master landscapes, fostered by a long tradition of general trading with the Dutch through the local ports. We don’t know precisely when the two Gainsborough landscapes were first hung in Drinkstone Park. As the property descended from one generation to the next, the correct description of the current work was lost. However, this was resolved when the painting  was auctioned in London in 1998.1 A subsequent review of paintings in the Beit collection at Russborough House, Co. Wicklow, led to the identification of the painting as an exact copy of Ruisdael’s Grainfield Beside a Road. The work is the only extant example of a true Old Master copy among Gainsborough's landscapes.

Photograph of a painting by Jacob van Ruisdael 1626-1682

Jacob van Ruisdael: Grainfield beside a road, c.1660-65.(Beit Foundation, Ireland).

Side by side, first impressions are that both paintings are by the same hand. Adriaan Waiboer suggests that for Gainsborough to have achieved such a precise reproduction, he must have worked directly from Ruisdael's original canvas although close study reveals minor variations.2 Waiboer points out that the foreground figure in the Gainsborough is slightly more stooped than his counterpart in the Ruisdael and that there are slight differences in the drawing of the clouds. In the former, just above the cornfield to the left is a hovering bird, which does not appear in the Ruisdael although all of the others are are reproduced in precise detail. In spite of these slight discrepancies, there is no doubt that Gainsborough’s intention was to paint a precise reproduction. A tracing of one painting superimposed over the other confirms that all the main features fall into place with only one minor discrepancy. Gainsborough’s canvas is one inch narrower than the Ruisdael. To overcome this, Gainsborough adjusted the drawing of the hedgerow to the right of the path.

The distinctive buildings on the horizon identify Ruisdael’s landscape as a distant view of the village of Muiderberg. Pieter Biesboer has confirmed that the architecture of the church is consistent with various depictions of the same village by Rembrandt and a number of other artists working about this time.
3 He points out that the area of Muiderberg, located on the coast of the Zuider Zee, now known as the Ysselmeer, was surrounded by sand dunes. Just outside the village, on the banks of a small river that ran in the direction of Naarden, there were two windmills, which are included in minute detail on the horizon in both of the current works. Biesboer points out that there were grainfields in this area and suggests that this further favours the identification. He draws our attention to three other paintings by Ruisdael: the View of Naarden with the church of Muiderberg in the distance is the most important from our point of view as it depicts a ruined church with two windmills to the left, all closely resembling those depicted in our landscapes;4 Ruins of an old church at Muiderberg in winter, which shows another view of the village with corresponding architecture5 and Landscape near the ruins of the old church at Muiderberg, which gives a closer view of the church with compatible detail.6 Despite slight differences in the shape of the windows, Seymour Slive suggests that the identification of the church is further supported by an etching from Geertruyd Roghman’s survey of the villages surrounding Amsterdam.7 Slive points out that Ruisdael would not have felt the necessity to reproduce the church windows in precise detail.8

Gainsborough was twelve or thirteen years of age when he was sent to London to develop the skills he had displayed since childhood. In 1740, he became a pupil of Hubert-François Gravelot and spent the following three years or so working under Francis Hayman at the Old Academy of Arts in St. Martin’s Lane. By 1745 he had established his own studio in Hatton Garden. Survival depended upon building a successful portrait practice but commissions were hard to secure for an unknown artist. To make ends meet, he assisted some of the more established painters and took in restoration and general work. He painted small landscapes in the Dutch style, which according to an obituary in the Morning Chronicle, he frequently sold to dealers for trifling prices. The distinctive skies are the most common feature of these early works but they were not confined to his landscapes. The celebrated portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews, (National Gallery, London) for example, is set in front of a sky, which could have been taken directly from the present painting. The trees, hedgerows and cornfields are also worthy of comparison.

By 1746, Gainsborough had developed an outstanding ability to handle complex techniques. this is evident  in paintings such as Extensive landscape with chalky banks (National Gallery of Ireland), painted circa 1746-47. In a highly proficient approach to perspective, Gainsborough creates an illusion of space and distance by incorporating a winding track, which falls into a pool of water just beyond the foreground. It reappears in the middle distance and again in the far distance before it disappears in a final curve towards the horizon. The contour of the clouds mirrors that of the landscape; an advanced technique which enhances the illusion and encourages the eye to travel on to the horizon. The scale of the composition is set by an intricate series of motifs placed along the track and on both sides of the high ground above it. Amongst all of Gainsborough’s early work, this is perhaps the painting that comes closest to the Dutch naturalists.

However, within a very short time, there is a remarkable change of style, which may have been inspired by a desire to depict the landscape of his native counties. This first becomes noticeable in Wooded landscape with peasant resting
(Tate Gallery, London) painted circa 1747, in which a remote hamlet is viewed from the edge of a woodland. Indeed, he was so successful in this that the painting was mistaken for a view of Dedham for many years. Wooded landscape with peasant sleeping by a track (São Paulo Museum, Brazil) is a closely related painting. The work has long been regarded as a reversal of Ruisdael’s La forêt. However, the differences between the two paintings are so extreme that the Gainsborough must be regarded as an original composition in its own right. The painting was previously known as A view of Drinkstone Park, the error perhaps stemming from Drinkstone’s manmade lake, which is not dissimilar to that in the São Paulo painting.

Technical examination of Landscape with Figures on a Path indicates that Gainsborough followed not only the imagery of the Dutch masters but also their methods. Pigment analysis discloses a double ground, the lower layer of which is a warm orange fawn consisting of lead white and orange ochre, which closely resembles that used by Gainsborough in many of his paintings. The upper ground layer is a
greyish pink made up of lead white, lamp black and orange ochre, which shows through the final glazes in parts of the sky, a common feature of 17th century Dutch landscape painting. The purplish grey of the clouds is comprised of a mixture of lead white, charcoal black and a small amount of crimson lake, a method closely resembling that of Ruisdael. The yellow of the wheatfield is mainly a mixture of yellow ochre (iron oxides) and lead white. This light yellow mix produces a similar colour to the lead-tin yellow, which Ruisdael might have used.

he paint is quite thinly applied in semi-translucent and opaque layers. In certain passages, the paint was applied in such a dilute state that it ran into the brushstrokes of the underlying layer. The trunk of the central tree, for example, runs into the thicker paint of the horizon line. Apart from than the broad hog’s hair brushwork of the upper ground, much of the painting is executed with fine point brushes. The foreground brushstrokes on the corn ears, for example, are extremely fine and were applied with a sable brush. The corn in the middle distance is dabbed to create depth. Opaque layers have been applied over transparent layers on the horizon line to create mid-tones, which enhance the impression of distance.9

DMP - An extract - full text on request.

Christie’s, 1991 as ‘follower of Thomas Gainsborough’. Subsequently. the painting was fully ascribed to Thomas Gainsborough, Sotheby’s, London, and sold 9th June 1998, lot no.3. In private correspondence, David Moore-Gwyn, head of British Paintings at Sotheby’s, confirms that the late Dr. John Hayes saw the painting and established the attribution and date of 1746 to 1748.
2 Private correspondence, Adriaan Waiboer, curator of Northern European Art at the National Gallery of Ireland.
3 Private correspondence, Dr. Pieter Biesboer, Curator, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, Holland.
4 S. Slive: 'Jacob van Ruisdael. A complete catalogue of his paintings, drawings and etchings', New Haven, 2001, No.78, pp.104-105.
5 Ibid. No.76, p.102
6 Ibid. No.77, pp.102-103.
7 Ibid. N.77a, p.103.
8 Private correspondence, Dr. Seymour Slive, Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University, U.S.A.
9 Sheldon and Gardner, University College London. (UCL report F1904).

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