Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 27, 2014
Hugh Belsey Gainsborough's Cottage Doors: An Insight into the Artist’s Last Decade Exh. cat. London: Paul Holberton, 2013. 120 pp.; 80 color ills. Paper $40.00 (9781907372506)
Revisiting The Cottage Door: Gainsborough’s Masterpiece in Focus
Exhibition schedule: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, June 1–December 2, 2013

In his latest publication, Gainsborough’s Cottage Doors: An Insight into the Artist’s Last Decade, Hugh Belsey highlights the spirited independence and skillful professional maneuvering of the artist he has researched for most of his career. More specifically, Belsey points out how Thomas Gainsborough’s attitudes and decisions, especially in relation to his rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, as well as the Royal Academy, clarify the creation of the celebrated Cottage Door (ca. 1780) painting in the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens and two subsequent similar versions. Indeed, the book coincides with the exhibition of all three canvases together for the first time permitting comparisons between the Huntington painting, which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1780, and the two recently authenticated variations, both of which were in Gainsborough’s posthumous sale at Schomberg House in spring 1789. For Belsey, Gainsborough’s repeated pictorial exploration of a rural dwelling emerging from an imposing wooded landscape was an unconventional direction fueled by personal resolve and deliverance.

Among scholars of Gainsborough and his art, Belsey is a leading authority whose educational background in fine arts and museum studies was put to practical purposes while serving as the curator of Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury from 1981 to 2004. During Belsey’s tenure, the Gainsborough House Society acquired a remarkable array of paintings, drawings, prints, books, and memorabilia relating to the artist and his time. Importantly, as it pertains to the current publication, Belsey managed the purchase of early and late examples of Gainsborough’s wooded landscape paintings (see Hugh Belsey, Gainsborough at Gainsborough’s House, London: Paul Holberton, 2002). At his retirement from this post, Belsey began his association with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London as a senior research fellow at work on the catalogue raisonné of Gainsborough’s portraits.

Gainsborough’s Cottage Doors establishes a narrative highlighting decisive actions in Gainsborough’s personal and professional realms that led directly to the paintings featuring cottage doors produced during the artist’s later years. In three richly illustrated chapters, Belsey outlines the trajectory of Gainsborough’s career from his irregular art education and early successes in Sudbury, London, and Ipswich to professional triumphs in portraiture and occasional landscape painting in Bath and London. The concluding pages consider the artist’s more personally and profoundly satisfying late investigations of rustic figures and rural idylls. The titles of the chapters reveal the idiosyncratic frame through which Belsey wishes to present his version of Gainsborough’s life story as it pertains specifically to the three versions of the Cottage Door painting.

The first chapter, “A Background of Dissent,” emphasizes specific incidents in Gainsborough’s early years that provide the foundation for his evolving unconventional approach to formal features, especially his expressive line and rich colors; to painterly expression, mainly his developing bravura brushwork; and to pictorial subject matter, principally the waifs and woodmen of his fancy pictures and the landscape paintings centered on cottage doors. At first, Belsey points out that Gainsborough came from a family of Dissenters or Nonconformists, which may go a long way in explaining why the artist was willing to challenge authority and break or ignore rules. Since he was largely self-taught and, after he arrived in London as a young teenager, mostly learned by working alongside fellow students and masters such as Hubert François-Gravelot, Francis Hayman, and William Hogarth, Gainsborough avoided both the stifling pedanticism and artificial mollycoddling of the artist’s studio. Among Gainsborough’s early works are landscapes he added to portraits completed by Hayman and similarly composed images entirely by his own hand, such as Robert Andrews and his Wife, Frances from ca. 1750, where his abilities to render the land and sky are already eloquently displayed. Familial responsibilities, however, colored the direction of Gainsborough’s art for the next two decades when portraiture was his primary subject for which he earned well and consistently.

In the final pages of this section, Belsey focuses on Gainsborough’s friendship with Joshua Kirby, an elder fellow artist from Suffolk. The lives of these two men were linked beginning with their collaboration on a painting of the church of St. Mary’s in Hadleigh near Suffolk from about 1748 in which Gainsborough likely painted the background and left the building to Kirby. After all, Kirby’s expertise was in perspective, the topic of his publication from 1754, which led to his appointment as drawing instructor to the Prince of Wales (later King George III) with whom he formed a life-long rapport. Partly as a result of his close relationship with the king, in 1768 Kirby was appointed President of the Incorporated Society of Artists, a loose organization dedicated to exhibiting the work of living British artists to which Gainsborough had belonged since its early years.

The presidency of his friend, Kirby, should have been reason to celebrate, but instead, at precisely the same time, discord in the organization fueled the establishment of the Royal Academy. Like many artists, Gainsborough had to make a choice between the two groups, and despite what Belsey calls “grave misgivings,” he strategically opted to join the Royal Academy as a founding member (21). Despite this professional betrayal, Gainsborough would eventually return to Kirby’s side in a public display of his loyalties. With sunlit photographs of two tombs in St. Anne’s churchyard in Kew, Belsey closes this chapter by noting that, in the end, Gainsborough chose to be buried alongside Kirby.

Chapter 2 shows that Gainsborough’s initial tentative apprehensions about the Royal Academy and its director, Reynolds, settled into a steady state of opposition to the goals and decisions of the organization. Gainsborough boycotted exhibitions mounted by the Royal Academy between 1773 and 1776; in 1774, he elected to show in a competing venue, with the Free Society of Artists. Belsey then highlights Gainsborough’s return to the Royal Academy in 1777, likely the result of the influence of an old friend, Nathaniel Dance, who also worried about the academic direction propagated by Reynolds. In his return to the annual spring exhibition, Gainsborough demonstrated his connections to the royal family with pendant portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland (1773–77), his mastery of Anthony Van Dyck’s style in the portrait of Mary Graham (1774), his continuing expertise in portraiture with the brilliant likeness of Carl Friedrich Abel (ca. 1777), and his grand contemplative demonstration of landscape painting with The Watering Place (before 1777).

By 1781, Gainsborough enjoyed royal patronage and press support, thanks, in part, to his friendship with Henry Bate Dudley who had just founded the Morning Herald, a best-selling newspaper that published unfailing praise for Gainsborough’s portraiture and landscape painting. Belsey points out that the artist’s public pictorial triumphs were increasingly balanced by private experimentations. Gainsborough explored new subject matter, such as seascapes and full-scale portrayals of rustic figures including a shepherd, a woodman, and a young girl with pigs, which were singled out from his landscape paintings; he also investigated a new printmaking medium, aquatint, and soft-ground etching.

Against this backdrop, the final struggles between Gainsborough and the Royal Academy unfolded. In both 1783 and 1784, Gainsborough sent detailed instructions to the hanging committee regarding the height placement of his paintings. Belsey’s title for chapter 2—“He never more, whilst he breaths, will send another Picture to the Exhibition”—gives some idea of the tone of this correspondence. Although the artist was appeased at first, on the second occasion Gainsborough’s demands for special hanging consideration simply could not be accommodated, and he withdrew all his works and never again exhibited with the Royal Academy. Instead, Gainsborough showed his works precisely as he wished in his own home, Schomberg House in Pall Mall.

In the final chapter, “The Whole Force of His Genius,” Belsey reveals Gainsborough’s valuing of varying degrees of finish and repetition. Liberated from the expectations of the academy and portrait patrons, the artist could now “be choosey about the commissions he accepted, paint for his own pleasure and satisfy his own curiosity” (63). What did he do now that he was free? According to Belsey, Gainsborough painted at a leisurely pace the subjects he preferred: the rustic men, women, and children of the fancy pictures (genre images featuring these figures and based, in part, on similar works by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo) and landscape. Even when fulfilling portrait commissions, which provided a steady stream of income, Gainsborough enhanced the intimacy of his sitters by adopting a new oval framing format and loose brushwork. Often, Gainsborough’s compositional, formal, and technical experimentation led him back to Van Dyck whom he copied and studied for solutions.

When working privately, Gainsborough created small-scale landscape paintings and drawings that reveal his experimentation with the number and placement of figures, the trees and sky of the landscape settings, the intensity of colors and the value of light, and the application of paint. All of these investigations are evident in the famous Cottage Door painting and the two autograph versions it inspired. For example, while deliberating on the composition of the Huntington canvas, Gainsborough transformed the original horizontal format of the painting to a vertical format by adding canvas strips to the top and bottom. This transformation allowed for greater emphasis on the sky and trees at the top of the painting and the repositioning and accentuation of the figural pyramid. Contributing to his understanding of this process, Belsey could recall a similar alteration in a related black-and-white chalk drawing that was added to the Gainsborough House in 2002 (cat. no. 23 in Belsey’s Gainsborough at Gainsborough’s House).

When Gainsborough returned to this precise scene in later canvases, he applied paint more loosely and altered the intensity of color and light. In the version owned by James Stunt, Gainsborough reused a canvas establishing that this study was intended for his private enjoyment. In the third version, from a Dallas private collection, the overall tonality is lighter and the application of paint is even sketchier. The transition from one work to the next reveals an increasingly instinctive brushwork and daring application of color.

Belsey concludes his account by looking at Gainsborough’s final resolution to the theme of the cottage door in a painting from spring 1788, the year of the artist’s death. In this version (not included in the exhibition) that closely mirrors the Huntington painting and its repetitions, Gainsborough added a seated man to the woman and children in front of the cottage door and altered the placement of the tree branches to enhance the closeness of the group. Belsey interprets this work as “a reflection of the artist’s personal tranquility in the closing months of his life” (110). Belsey suggests that this late painting could be understood as a decisive resolution to the artist’s anxiety evident in the woodman burdened by branches in several cottage door paintings and in the unusual subject, Diana and Actaeon, a private piece painted by Gainsborough in 1785. For Belsey, the laboring man and the ruined hunter are metaphors for the artist’s financial burdens.

At the beginning of his book, Belsey acknowledges two previous studies of the cottage door theme. First, he cites the volume of essays edited by Ann Bermingham, Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough’s Cottage Door (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) that accompanied the 2005–6 exhibition that centered on the Huntington’s Cottage Door painting and also included all the other major paintings of this theme and a variety of comparative materials. In this catalogue, prominent scholars explore thoroughly the meaning of the cottage door painting, the artist’s manner of composing and painting the theme in order to excite the viewer’s feelings, and the later viewing practices adopted by collectors to enhance the pleasure of the cottage door scenes. Second, he recognizes Susan Sloman’s Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2011) as a study that considers the role of repetition and recurrent motifs in landscape imagery, including the cottage door paintings. These comprehensive sources provide the foundational material for any in-depth study of Gainsborough’s rustic scenes. To these publications could be added Gainsborough’s Vision in which Amal Asfour and Paul Williamson (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999) highlight the significance of Nonconformism and moralizing literature to the interpretation of Gainsborough’s landscapes and peasant figures.

As a complement to these sources, Belsey’s Gainsborough’s Cottage Doors: An Insight into the Artist’s Last Decade relies upon selective biographical details to characterize Gainsborough as a principled painter who valued friendships and his own, often intuitive, practice of portraiture and landscape. Instead of considering the paintings in an exhaustive, encyclopedic fashion, Belsey understands Gainsborough’s late paintings featuring the cottage door as revelatory of the artist’s personality and life story. The end result is an expressive and surprisingly convincing portrayal of the painter.

Valerie Hedquist
Associate Professor, Art History and Criticism, School of Art, University of Montana

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