Creating a National Collection #3 Thomas Gainsborough, a Pair of Portraits
20 Apr 2021
Corinna Henderson, Curatorial Trainee partnered with Museums Sheffield
Welcome to week three of the Creating a National Collection blog. My name’s Corinna and I’m a Curatorial Trainee at the National Gallery, partnered with Museums Sheffield. I’ll be taking a closer look at two portraits in the exhibition by one of England’s finest eighteenth-century portraitists, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). On loan from the National Gallery, Dr Ralph Schomberg (about 1770) will be shown alongside Southampton City Art Gallery’s George, Lord Vernon (1767), which was acquired for the collection in 1957 under the direction of Maurice Palmer, the gallery’s second curator (1950-1970). Painted only a few years apart, the pictures were produced by Gainsborough during the height of his career, at a time when anyone who was anyone in fashionable Georgian society sought to have their likeness painted by the artist.
The Circus, Bath, as it is today. Gainsborough was the first tenant in a house in the newly built Royal Circus, designed by John Wood the Elder. © Wikimedia Commons, May 2020
From 1759 to 1774 Gainsborough lived in the spa town of Bath with his wife and two daughters. Bustling with wealthy visitors who divided their time between the parliamentary season in London and the summer season in Bath, it was the perfect spot for a lucrative portrait studio. Influenced by Van Dyck (1599-1641), Rubens (1577-1640) and seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting, Gainsborough’s clever fusion of portrait and landscape painting, of which these two pictures are a great example, became his signature style. The compositions allowed him to capitalise on the more profitable genre of portraiture whilst enabling him to practice his preferred painting subject, the lowlier genre of landscape. This interplay between man and nature was also a perfect visual conduit for an array of social ideas that blossomed in eighteenth-century culture, such as morality and sensibility.
Thomas Gainsborough, George, Lord Vernon, 1767, oil on canvas. Image © Southampton Cultural services.
Thomas Gainsborough Dr Ralph Schomberg, about 1770, oil on canvas. NG684. Bought, 1862. © The National Gallery, London.
At a first glance, the two pictures appear similar. Yet when exhibiting them as a pair they demonstrate Gainsborough’s keen ability to render the physiological and psychological difference of his sitters. Dr Ralph Schomberg is shown wearing his ‘physick’s wig’ to clearly denote his profession. His weary eyes look out with a benevolent watchfulness, and his stance, cane and hat in hand, suggests an attentive informality. Although he appears kindly, Gainsborough captures an air of stoic seriousness with the addition of a grey cloud looming above the Doctor. In 1771 he had cured Gainsborough’s younger daughter, Margaret, from a delirious fever. Although we’re not certain, it is thought that the picture may have been painted by the artist as a token of his gratitude or in place of medical fees.
In contrast, the portrait of George, Lord Vernon (1735-1830) is rather fanciful. He is shown leaning against the golden trunk of a tree in a comfortable and self-assured pose wearing a tricorne hat, typical to a genteel man. He’s also accompanied by a lithe Springer Spaniel, a gun dog used for retrieving game during country shoots. The dog begs his attention, but Vernon’s gaze is focused on some other distant interest and he takes little notice. Here is a man who is the master of both his hound and his country surroundings and is in Bath to enjoy leisurely pursuits. In 1780 he succeeded to his father’s title and became Lord Vernon of Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. As with Schonberg’s portrait, Gainsborough has placed Vernon in a fictitious landscape, yet his interaction within the natural setting is altogether different, distinguishing him as a man of nobility and wealth.
However successful Gainsborough may have been whilst in Bath, he grew tired of professional demands, and wrote to his friend William Jackson on the 4 June (year unknown):
“I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my viol da Gamba [a string instrument] and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the Fag End of Life in quietness and ease.”