Thomas Gainsborough and the Impending Storm
Did Georgian portraits of English aristocracy hide a darker alternative narrative?
Thomas Gainsborough was not a typical Rococo artist and in many ways his work is more aligned with the Romantic movement. He began his career painting landscapes, but soon found that portraiture paid better. He painted many images of the elite at their pastimes, but he often included a veiled critique of the wider societal situation.
His most iconic work, the double portrait of Robert and Frances Andrews painted in 1750, is an early example of this approach. Not a personal favourite of mine, but I feel I’m justified in using the word ‘iconic’ here as it was chosen as one of just four paintings to represent all of British art in the 1953 exhibition in Paris celebrating the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Possibly, its representation of an English idyll was the main factor in selection.
Here we see the two wealthy patrons being civilised and cultured. The man, Robert, strikes a casual stance in his gentleman’s hunting strides, with gun and dog. Frances Mary, his very fashionable and rather rigid wife, is writing a letter… or perhaps about to embroider? It’s thought her pose, which displays the fine silk of her gown and costly shoes, was designed to allow the addition of a baby at a later date.
This picture shows us the rich in a way that they wanted to see themselves — as hereditary custodians of the land. This is also symbolised by the long established oak tree behind them. Robert stands on one of its sturdy roots, emphasising his connection with the land, its past, and future.
This is not a typical portrait as much of the canvas is given over to landscape. The obviously extensive Andrews estate forms the backdrop, with neat rows of wheat sheaves giving a receding depth to the composition, leading the eye to the distant pastoral scene…
However, they didn’t harvest that wheat. They didn’t tend those flocks. Yet any peasant workers are conspicuous by their absence. The stormy sky also adds a sense of foreboding — an example of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ widely used by the Symbolists and Romantics, where the actual atmosphere of a scene reflects the emotional ‘atmosphere’ of the situation. Possibly a damning critique of social inequality as well as a prophetic metaphor of the approaching unrest and the coming period of revolution…
The single poppy in the foreground, at the bottom right margin of the canvas, is a subtle inclusion, yet its placement gives it some import. Painters of this period were well aware of botanical symbolism and the poppy meant one of just a few things: peace, sleep, oblivion — due to it being the source of opium — and its association with the ‘eternal sleep’ of death goes back to classical Greek and Roman mythologies…
Over the ensuing decade, Gainsborough established himself as one of foremost portrait painters in England and had no shortage of commissions. A prime example would be his 1760 portrait of Countess Howe. His skill is evident here in the detailing of the lace and silk of the ostentatious dress, as well as the sensitivity of the face. Great care has been taken to pose the subject in a way that shows her elegance and also her fashion sense.
It was traditional to show the landed gentry in their gardens and formal grounds, but Gainsborough favoured more natural landscape and here the background appears quite wild. The tree looks wind-tugged and the sky is a stormy grey. Is this the pathetic fallacy again? Or, does the artist know something about the wilder side of Mary, Countess Howe?
Visually, the darker backdrop of the impending storm serves to counterpoint the luminous sheen of the beautifully rendered silk and pale intricacies of lace, though it seems at odds with the widely fashionable ‘frothy’ lightness of the more frivolous Rococo style.
Baroque had slowly transitioned into Rococo, which was lighter in both its appearance and themes. Rococo painters tended to depict the pleasurable pastimes of their wealthy patrons, avoiding deeper symbolism. They were striving for an elegance and lightness of tone in a rejection of the dark dramatics of the Baroque.
In this painting, Gainsborough seems to distance himself further from Rococo sentiments and prefigures the Romantic ideal of ‘the sublime’ to be found in wild places. It also harks back to the dark, dramatic backgrounds of the Baroque and so hints at a deeper symbolism that would be expected from that earlier fashion.
This is a pleasing and sympathetic portrait of the Countess. Her expression is far kindlier, and more approachable, than either Mr or Mrs Andrews! Though Gainsborough still seems critical of the overall situation. Perhaps, in this painting of another aristocrat, he’s telling the viewer that there is indeed ‘a storm brewing’?
The Industrial Revolution was steaming ahead in Great Britain, America was on the brink, and the French Revolution was to follow in 1789. Is he presenting us with a more explicit prophecy of the looming revolutionary period?
A version of this article was first published in my book Evolution of Western Art (questing beast books, 2012)