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Thomas Gainsborough
1727–1788

Track through sandy hills with trees

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Medium
Black chalk
Size
10 ⅞ × 13 ⅞ inches · 275 × 345 mm
Notes
Signed in ink with initials ‘TG’, lower right
Drawn c. 1748
Collections
  • private collection, UK;
  • Stephen Somerville Ltd., London, 1988;
  • Private collection, purchased from the above;
  • Spink-Leger, London, 1998;
  • Private collection, USA, purchased from the above, to 2017.
Exhibitions
  • London, Stephen Somerville Ltd. at Bernheimer, Exhibition of Watercolours, Drawings & Paintings, 1988, no. 8;
  • London, Spink-Leger Pictures, Annual Exhibition of Watercolours and Drawings, 1998, no. 1.
Literature
  • Hugh Belsey, ‘A Second Supplement to John Hayes’s “The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough”’, Master Drawings, XLVI (4), Winter 2008, pp. 466–67, no. 1005, repr. fig. 30.

This meticulously finished drawing is one of the most ambitious compositional studies Gainsborough made during the first decade of his career. It is the most impressive sheet from a group rediscovered in the 1980s; densely worked, the drawing offers valuable information about Gainsborough’s technique and approach to landscape in the 1740s. As a finished, signed work it is also one of the most successful and attractive drawings made whilst Gainsborough was establishing himself as an independent master.

Gainsborough was born in Suffolk and there is a long tradition that associates his earliest landscapes with the flat scenery of East Anglia. Gainsborough’s friend and obituarist, the Reverend Sir Henry Bate Dudley wrote in 1788 that: ‘Nature was his teacher and the woods of Suffolk his academy; here he would pass in solitude his moments in making a sketch of an antiquated tree, a marshy brook, a few cattle, a sheep herd and his flock, or any other accidental objects that were present.’[1] In fact, this drawing, like the majority of Gainsborough’s earliest landscapes, was made towards the end of the 1740s, after he had spent a period working in London in the circle of the second St Martin’s Lane Academy. We know he moved back to Sudbury in 1748/9 and is recorded living in Ipswich by 1752, Belsey has dated the present sheet to 1748.[2] The landscape depicted – the sandy banks, sparse, low trees and scrub – recalls the flatlands of Suffolk, but it seems unlikely that this particular drawing was made en plein air, or that it is even strictly topographical.

At this date, Gainsborough’s landscapes were principally exercises made in the manner of Dutch seventeenth-century models. We know Gainsborough had a relationship with a dealer, Panton Betew, who made a living selling modern imitations of Dutch seventeenth-century landscape paintings.[3] During his training Gainsborough took part in the associated practices of the dealer restoring and ‘improving’ Dutch paintings; the 1762 sale of John Oldfield’s collection includes a ‘Dutch Landscape, repaired by Mr Gainsborough’ and a painting by ‘Wijnants the figures by Mr Gainsborough’.[4] The access to genuine Dutch landscapes of the seventeenth century offered a supplement to the young Gainsborough’s formal training. This exposure evidently stimulated his activity as a painter producing landscape compositions heavily indebted to seventeenth-century models.[5] These were the paintings that Gainsborough would later refer to as ‘my first imitations of little Dutch Landskips.’[6]

The present composition, with its serpentine path leading through sandy banks, and framing trees recalls the work of Meindert Hobbema or Jan Wijnants. The drawing is carefully structured and Gainsborough has clearly experimented with building up areas of dense vegetation to make an interesting scene, full of variety. Gainsborough did work outdoors and numerous sketchbook pages survive proving the extent to which he made careful studies from nature, but there is also evidence that he did not consider these to be finished works of art. Gainsborough articulated the idea that these studies acted as exercises rather than formal drawings in a letter to his patron, Constantine Phipps, who he was teaching to draw: ‘You know, Sir, I set you to this [sketch of foliage] merely to free your hand, but you are not to understand that for Drawing – therefore remember that there must be truth of hand, as well as freedom of hand in Drawing.’[7]

As a finished drawing, signed in pen, in the bottom right with Gainsborough’s initials, it is perhaps worth considering the purpose of such a sheet? Highly worked drawings such as this seem not to be preparatory to paintings, although it is, in a sense, related to a number of Gainsborough’s finished canvases made at the same time: the subject matter and handling are analogous if not identical. The recent re-identification by Lindsay Stainton of a group of large-scale landscape drawings of the second half of the 1740s in the Royal Collection at Windsor will certainly air our understanding of Gainsborough’s working practices as a landscape painter early in his career.  The Windsor drawings were evidently intended to be used directly as aids to producing easel paintings and one must assume that his rapidly increasing confidence as an artist and as a technician soon rendered such studies unnecessary. A number of drawings in the Royal Collection are closely related to the present composition (RCIN 931545, 931550, 931556) and underline the difference in the final years of the 1740s between a highly finished exercise such as our drawing and a drawing made for transcription to canvas.

There is evidence that Gainsborough sold his finished drawings. Joseph Nollekens recorded Panton Betew stating that: ‘I have had many and many a drawing of his [Gainsborough’s] in my shop-window before he went to Bath; ay, and he has often been glad to receive seven or eight shillings from me for what I have sold: Paul Sandby knows it well.’[8] The present sheet was discovered with six other drawings of approximately the same date, all of a similar level of finish, although not all finished. 

References

  1. The Morning Herald, 8 August, 1788. 
  2. Hugh Belsey, ‘A Second Supplement to John Hayes’s ‘The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough’, Master Drawings, XLVI (4), Winter 2008,  pp. 466–67, no. 1005. 
  3. J. T. Smith, Nollekens and His Times, London, 1828, vol.I, pp. 189–90.
  4. A. Corri, ‘Gainsborough’s Early Career: New Documents and Two Portraits’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.125, 1983, pp. 212–16. 
  5. Susan Foister, The Young Gainsborough, exh. cat., London (National Gallery), 1997, pp. 3–12. 
  6. John Hayes, The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 174. 
  7. Thomas Gainsborough to the Hon Constantine Phipps, later 2nd Baron Mulgrave, in ed. John Hayes, The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, New Haven and London, 2001, p.92. 
  8. J. T. Smith, Nollekens and His Times, London, 1828, vol.I, pp. 189–90.