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Thomas Gainsborough R.A. 1727-1788

Photograph of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough.

Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788

Landscape with Figures on a Path

Oil on canvas 19½ x 23¾ inches
circa 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: ‘The Portraits, Fancy Pictures and Copies after Old Masters’; Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2019, p.420, Grigby notes;
John Hayes: ‘The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, London, 1982, p.347, no.20, notes.
John Harcourt Powell, Argyle Street, London, by 1814;
by descent to his son, John Harcourt Powell, Beighton, Suffolk;
his son, Thomas Harcourt Powell, Drinkstone Park, Suffolk;
Mrs. John Harcourt Powell, Drinkstone Park, 1943;
Christie’s, London, 1991;
Sotheby’s, London, 1998;
Milmo-Penny Fine Art, Dublin;
Private collection, Dublin

Price on application.

Unique in Gainsborough's landscapes, the painting is a replica of Jacob van Ruisdael’s Grainfield Beside a Road (Ulster Museum Belfast), painted circa 1660-1665, which depicts a distant view of the village of Muiderberg. According to Pieter Biesboer (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem), the architecture of the church is consistent with various depictions of Muiderberg by Rembrandt and several other artists. He points out that the area of Muiderberg, located on the coast of the Zuider Zee, was surrounded by dunes. Just outside the village, on the banks of a small river that ran in the direction of Naarden, there were two windmills. He also refers to grain fields in this area and suggests that this further favours the identification. He draws our attention to three particular paintings by Ruisdael. The View of Naarden with the Church of Muiderberg in the Distance is the most important of these from our point of view as it depicts a ruined church with two windmills to the left, closely resembling those in the current work. Ruins of an Old Church at Muiderberg in Winter shows another view of the village in which the architecture of the church tower corresponds. Landscape Near the Ruins of the Old Church at Muiderberg shows a closer view of the church with reliable similarities. According to Seymour Slive (Jacob van Ruisdael, Catalogue of Paintings, 2001), the identification of the church is supported in an etching by Geertruyd Roghman’s survey of the villages surrounding Amsterdam. Slive suggests that Ruisdael did not feel the necessity to reproduce the church windows in precise detail.

Photograph of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough.

Thomas Gainsborough: Landscape with Figures on a Path; detail

Side by side, it appears that both paintings are identical and by the same hand although close examination reveals minor variations. Adriaan Waiboer (National Gallery of Ireland) suggests that for Gainsborough to have achieved the duplication of such precise detail, he must have worked directly from Ruisdael's original painting. He draws our attention to slight differences in the drawing of the clouds and a slightly more stooped figure in the foreground of the Gainsborough. Another discrepancy is a bird hovering just above the cornfield in the Gainsborough, which does not appear in the Ruisdael but, despite these differences, there is little doubt that Gainsborough's intention was to paint an exact replica. Scaled tracings of both works superimposed over each other show that the main features fall precisely into place. However, Gainsborough’s canvas is one inch narrower than Ruisdael’s, which is accommodated in alterations to the trees and hedges at the extreme right. This particular divergence was undoubtedly deliberate and brought about a slight alteration in the drawing of the hedgerows along the right-hand side of the painting. Gainsborough had a passion for fine frames and the alteration was probably made so that so that the canvas would fit the existing carved Chippendale frame. 

Photograph of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough.

Thomas Gainsborough: Landscape with Figures on a Path; detail

A brief overview of Gainsborough's early career places the painting in context. In 1740, when Gainsborough was no more than thirteen years of age, his parents sent him to London to develop his skills. He first studied with the French artist Hubert-François Gravelot and the following three years with Francis Hayman at the Old Academy of Arts in St. Martin’s Lane. In 1745 he set up a studio in Hatton Garden but found it difficult to secure portrait commissions. To make ends meet, he assisted some of the established painters and took in restoration and general work. He painted small landscapes in the Dutch style which, according to his obituary in the Morning Chronicle, he frequently sold to dealers for trifling prices.

At that time, the practice of copying as a means of development was common but we shall see below that Gainsborough's practice  was to paint a variation of a masterwork rather than a precise copy, which lends a certain degree of uniqueness to the current landscape. This particular observation suggests that the current landscape was commissioned by a patron. The taste in mid-18th century England was for opulent portraits, such as the Grigby example illustrated below. Landscapes, usually copied from the Dutch masters, took second place and were hung as chimneypieces. We can only speculate as to how Gainsborough came by Ruisdael’s original. It is unlikely that he owned it as he had three Ruisdael’s in his collection at the time of his death, all of which can be ruled out on dimensions alone. However, the Harcourt Powell family owned substantial estates across Britain and it may well be that the the Ruisdael hung in one of their houses and that Gainsborough was commissioned  to paint a copy, perhaps for the Argyle Street residence or one of the other Harcourt Powell properties. In any event, the Ruisdael eventually found its way onto the London market in the early 1900s and passed from the collection of C.T.D. Crews to Sir Otto Beit and ultimately to Russborough House in County Wicklow.

By 1746, Gainsborough had developed an outstanding ability to handle complex techniques. This is apparent in works such as  Extensive Landscape with Chalky Banks (National Gallery of Ireland), painted at this time. Soon afterwards, there was a noticeable change in style, perhaps inspired by a desire to depict the landscape of his native Suffolk. We find this in paintings such as Wooded Landscape with Peasant Resting (Tate Gallery London), painted circa 1747, in which a remote hamlet is viewed from the edge of woodland. Indeed, the painting was known as a view of Dedham for many years. Nevertheless, Ruisdael’s influence is still very much in evidence as we can see from his portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews (National Gallery London) which also shows a remarkable similarity in the handling of sky and cornfield when compared to the current landscape.

Photograph of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough.

Thomas Gainsborough: Wooded Landscape with Peasant Sleeping
Oil on canvas. 145x155cm. São Paulo Museum, Brazil.

Historians have traditionally regard Joshua Grigby II as the original owner of Landscape with Figures on a Path. However, the painting, together with another Drinkstone Park landscape, was included in an exhibition at the British Institution in 1814 where the lender was described as H. Powell Esq. Accordingly; we can now show that the landscape came to Drinkstone Park through the marriage of Joshua Grigby’s daughter, Lucy, to John Harcourt Powell in 1786. The exhibition was a memorial held in honour of William Hogarth, Richard Wilson, Thomas Gainsborough and Johann Zoffany. Fifty-six paintings by Gainsborough were included. All were from private collections apart from two works lent by the Royal Academy. According to the catalogue, Powell lent numbers 22 and 38, both described as 'Landscape in his early manner’. We don’t know precisely when the paintings moved from Powell’s London residence to Drinkstone Park but it was probably shortly after Joshua Grigby’s death in 1798. Nevertheless, as the Drinkstone estate descended from one generation to the next, the provenance and authorship of the current landscape was forgotten.

The second Powell painting exhibited at the British Institution was also painted at this time. Wooded Landscape with Peasant Sleeping by a Track is regarded as a mirror image of Ruisdael’s La Forêt. However, the differences between the two paintings are extreme. The Ruisdael is a narrative painting, focusing on the centre foreground figures. Gainsborough replaces this group with a solitary figure to the left thereby maintaining an open vista, which allows the eye to travel unhindered to the horizon. There are also substantial differences in the trees and sky and the manner in which the horizon is depicted.

The painting was previously known as A View of Drinkstone Park, arising perhaps from Drinkstone’s manmade lake, which is not dissimilar to that in the painting. Nevertheless, there may be an actual Drinkstone landscape, unrecognised for centuries. About 1765, or perhaps a little earlier, Gainsborough painted a portrait of Joshua Grigby II overlooking an estate which, allowing for artistic license, represents a view of Drinkstone Park. According to local history: 'the painter Gainsborough was summoned to make a portrait of a rich businessman, Joshua Grigsby, who had built for himself a grand house at Drinkstone Park'. The house was completed in 1760 or thereabouts and it may well be that the portrait was commissioned to celebrate the event. Grigby is posed on high ground overlooking a view showing the house on the far side of the Black Bourne River, which  feeds Drinkstone Park Lake as it winds its way across the estate. Just beyond, in the middle distance, is All Saints Church in the village of Drinkstone Green where Joshua and many of the Grigby family are buried.

Photograph of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough.

Thomas Gainsborough: Joshua Grigby II, 1760-65.
Oil on canvas. 127x101cm. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Joshua Grigby II (1731-1798) obtained a law degree at Cambridge in 1754 and became a successful lawyer. He was an ardent campaigner for civil and religious liberty and is best remembered as a Member of Parliament who fought for the abolition of the slave trade. His father, Joshua Grigby I (1710-1771) was a wealthy solicitor who practised in Bury St. Edmunds where he also acted as town clerk. He was Lord of the Manor of Gonvile, situated in the parish of Windham, Norfolk. He also had property in Drinkstone, presumably the land on which his son built the mansion.

Analysis of Landscape with Figures on a Path shows that Gainsborough employed many of the techniques of the Dutch masters. We find a double ground, the lower layer of which is a warm orange-fawn consisting of lead white and orange-ochre. The same ground layers are found in many of Gainsborough’s other works. The upper ground layer is a greyish pink consisting of lead white, lamp black and orange ochre. This shows through the final glazes in parts of the sky, a common feature of 17th-century Dutch landscape painting . The purple-grey of the clouds is a mixture of lead white, charcoal black and a small amount of crimson lake, a method that closely resembles that of Ruisdael. The yellow of the wheat field 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 (Analysis: Sheldon & Gardner, University College London).

The paint is quite thinly applied in both semi-translucent and opaque layers. In certain places, the very thin paint of the trees was applied in such a dilute state that it ran into the impasto of the underlying paint. The trunk of the central tree runs over the paint on the horizon and was applied in a very fluid state. Other than the broad hog’s hair brushwork of the upper ground, much of the painting is executed with fine brushes. The foreground brushstrokes on the corn ears, for example, are extremely fine and probably done with a sable brush. Some of the corn towards the middle-ground is dabbed on with a fine brush to give the effect of distant corn. On the horizon, opaque layers were applied over transparent layers to indicate mid-tones and an impression of distance. Along the horizon is a slightly thick line of paint applied to imitate a panel joint.

Jacob van Ruisdael: Grainfield Beside a Road
Thomas Gainsborough: Extensive Landscape with Chalky Banks
Thomas Gainsborough: Wooded Landscape with Peasant Resting
Thomas Gainsborough: Mr and Mrs Andrews
Thomas Gainsborough: Landscape with Figures on a Path (frame)
History of Drinkstone Park

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