The Circus

The Circus

Pages 1 to 65

21st C
My partner Iann and I moved into Gainsborough’s House, in The Circus, Bath, in 1987. A bronze plaque on the façade stated that Thomas Gainsborough the celebrated portrait--painter had lived here in the 18th C but the real-estate agent appeared to be unaware of the history of the building. The documentation had not been completed and he showed me the property at the last minute as a favour when nothing else appealed.
I knew as soon as I walked into the dining room at the rear and gazed out over the garden enclosed in high stone walls that this was the house for me. Fortunately, Iann agreed. The house has a warm, welcoming feeling to it and I fell in love with it
The Gainsboroughs were here with us from the beginning. There
was little to be done in the way of restoration as the house had
been sensitively adapted in the 1940’s into separate accommodation - two levels at the top of the house being separated from the three remaining levels, garden, vaults and basement areas. Only the basement required major renovation and the decorators had soon completed their work.

But the embarrassing smell? That puzzled me from the beginning. So many visitors commented on it - an unpleasant fishy, blocked-drains odour emanating from the first-floor room overlooking the garden which Gainsborough had used as his painting room. He had the central Venetian window raised another story to make the most of the northern light preferred by artists This awful smell appeared and disappeared without
warning, always on the first floor, in what is now a guest room
with a Victorian addition containing a bathroom opening off it, and sometimes spreading out onto the first floor landing.
In spite of various investigations into its possible cause, no plumber, builder or architect could determine the cause of the smell, which continues to appear and disappear at will.

A former director of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery encountering the odour for the first time told me he thought it similar to the fish or bone-based glue used by 18th C artists to size canvases before painting them.

I believe that the odour indicates Thomas Gainsborough’s ghostly presence in the house that he loved when he was the first tenant, bringing his family to live here at the end of 1766. He painted some of his most famous portraits in this painting room, including possibly the best-known of his works,

The Blue Boy. 4.
There is, of course, no concrete evidence to prove the ghostly link as Iann, a scientist, constantly reminds me. But whenever I encounter the fishy smell, which in no way is anything but benign, I say “Welcome, Mr Gainsborough!”
As far as his wife is concerned, there is little contemporary documentary evidence. And most of what is recorded was written by her husband’s male friends who tended to be critical, some being actively hostile towards her. I have a sympathy for Mrs Gainsborough. Being the constant companion of a charming, popular and successful man at the height of his career while coping privately with his idiosyncratic demands and indiscretions can be stressful indeed.

So, what do we know of Margaret Burr Gainsborough?

5. 21ST C
I was born in 1930 on the beautiful remote island of Tasmania, within shivering distance of the Antarctic’s icy winter winds.
I enjoyed a care=free childhood as the eldest of four children, all of us lucky to have parents engaged until death in a happy marriage.
18th C
Margaret Burr Gainsborough was born 202 years earlier in 1728, the illegitimate and only child of the third Duke of Beaufort. Her mother, also known as Margaret Burr, was a pretty girl, a member of the Aikman family who were involved in the art world in Scotland as both artists, and packers and shippers of art. The firm had arranged despatch home of art works purchased by the Duke on his Grand Tour of Europe from 1725 to 1727 when he left Italy to return to his estate, Badminton near Bath. The Duke and the attractive girl presumably met and had an affair about this time as their daughter was born the following year. Margaret Burr senior appears to have died before the child turned sixteen 6.
when the Duke settled on his daughter the handsome sum of £200 a year which was paid to her until her death.

When Margaret Burr was a teenager she was confronted by shocking newspaper headlines reporting in vivid detail the unusual proceedings relating to her aristocratic father and his wife. The Duke had decided to part with his notoriously loose and adulterous Duchess, Frances Scudamore, and in 1744
their divorce was granted, only the fourth involving members of the peerage to take place in the history of Britain.

No blushes were spared in the public account of it. The Duchess attempted to defend herself by claiming that the Duke was impotent. To everyone’s surprise the Duke rejected an ancient rite permitting him to be accompanied to a brothel to prove his virility to the Court. Instead, and to what must have been the intense embarrassment of his sixteen year old natural daughter,
he elected to perform behind a screen in the presence of Court officials and doctors to prove he was not impotent. Newspapers and gossips alike gloried in the detail: one London wit wrote to a friend describing the delight of society in passing on this news, saying that His Grace’s cock was in everybody’s mouth.
Within a year the Duke was dead and his daughter left an orphan, a pretty young girl with a handsome income, a prize waiting to be won by some ambitious young man.
21st C
At sixteen I was living at home in Tasmania with my parents and three much younger brothers, loving the sharp-scented eucalyptus bush walks and swimming from golden beaches fringing the island. Several years later I met my future husband on the newly-established science campus of the University of Tasmania, not the most romantic of settings as it was then accommodated in stark wooden ex-army huts situated on the old rifle range in Sandy Bay, a few miles from the centre of Hobart. 8.
18TH C
At sixteen Margaret Burr lived in Duke Street near Grosvenor Square, a fashionable part of London then as now. In spite of her father’s recognition and financial support she had no social contact with him although it is possible that he employed her in some capacity for a short while at his grand house in London. But she, as an illegitimate child, played no part in the Duke’s personal or social life and seems never to have visited his estate at Badminton, even when she lived close by in Bath.
21ST C
Speaking of aristocratic connections, my only encounter with the royal family was at one remove. In the early 1950’s I was invited by the local authority to stand in for Her Majesty The Queen at the rehearsal for one of her State visits to Launceston, Tasmania. As a professional radio actor and broadcaster I was asked to “arrive” at the airport, and taking the role of The Queen, I emerged from a stationary passenger plane commandeered for 9.
the occasion, proceeded to walk down the aircraft steps, waving to the crowd, greeted The Governor of Tasmania waiting on the tarmac and then, accompanied by various Army dignitaries, I inspected the guard of honour, before boarding Her Majesty’s limousine and driving with the Governor to the Town Hall to repeat the official functions there. Of the two of us, nervous as I was, the Governor was more so. His hands were shaking as he kept on taking courage from his little silver hip flask as we were driven along behind a police escort, sirens blaring, assuring me I was coping very well in what to him was clearly a shattering experience. And this was only the rehearsal.
I, of course, never lived down the headlines and striking photograph which appeared on the front page of the local newspaper the following day. “Queen for the day!” My friends and family have never let me forget it. 10.
18th C
Margaret was fully aware of both her aristocratic and her lesser Scottish connections and so was her husband who, in later years, tried to find work in England for one of her poor relations, a turner, who had fallen on hard times in Scotland.
Margaret was a pretty girl who had inherited her mother’s nose and eyes, offset to some extent by the double chin of her father. She was immensely proud of her aristocratic connections.
“I have some right to this,” she said on one occasion, caressing the richly ornate gown she wore as she spoke to her grown-up niece, Mrs Lane. “For you know, my love, I am a Prince’s daughter!”
Although widely acknowledged as being illegitimate she could truthfully claim a royal bloodline, descending directly from Edward- III through his son John of Gaunt to Henry Somerset, third Duke of Beaufort. 11.
Life could be cruel for illegitimate children in the 18th C, girls in particular, especially when born to aristocrats. Boys were often taken into the father’s household, brought up as children of the house and given titles, but girls were dismissed, unrecognised, sent out to live in the country to be raised by a wet nurse or a farmer’s wife and were usually never permitted contact with the family again. This was certainly the fate of any female child born as the result of an unfaithful aristocratic wife’s indiscretion.
Legitimate children of loving parents were also often sent out from home immediately after birth to be brought up by a wet-nurse in the country, frequently left there for a year or two. One new-born baby, the daughter of a wealthy family living in Cornwell was despatched to the country in care of her wet-nurse who was married to a smuggler. Susan Sibbald was a much- loved legitimate child, but because she was the only one of a large brood to have dark hair and eyes, while all her siblings were fair and blue-eyed, she was convinced as a young teenager that she 12.
was the child of the smuggler who had brought her up.
It was not until she first met her uncle, who had the same dark colouring as herself, that she was convinced that she was her father’s daughter.
As far as Margaret Burr was concerned the Duke’s generous funding saved her from living life as a servant and gave her the opportunity of finding an acceptable suitor although, pretty as she was, as an illegitimate child she would be unlikely to attract a husband of high status.

At 17 Margaret lived in a fashionable part of London, bereft of both mother and father but enjoying the company of influential friends. Members of the family of James Unwin, a successful London lawyer and property developer, were kind to her and she frequently stayed with them at their property in Essex, just a few miles away from the family home of a certain young man, Thomas Gainsborough, in Sudbury.
Unlike Gainsborough’s early patron, Philip Thickness, who made no secret of the fact that he heartily detested Margaret throughout his life,
James Unwin was always fond of her and he was to become influential in her life.
Margaret Burr was about to embark on a most important encounter. How much of it was coincidental, how much of it was planned?
Thomas Gainsborough was a charming young man who had the ability all his life to make and keep friends. Generous to a fault, gregarious and fond of entertaining he was always in demand.
He was born in Sudbury in 1727, the fifth child and youngest of the five sons of John Gainsborough and his wife Mary Burroughs. They had four daughters in addition to their sons and lived in an old house, formerly an inn, The Black Horse, now known as Gainsborough’s House, a museum dedicated to the painter.
At the time Thomas was born his father was a prosperous cloth merchant, the family having been connected with the woollen industry in East Anglia for many years. However, in the 1730’s John’s business suffered a serious down-turn and he faced difficult times in providing for his large family.
For many years the Gainsborough clan had traditionally supported the dissenters, attending chapel rather than the established church, and generally displaying an independence of
mind which was soon apparent in the case of Thomas and his brothers.
Nevertheless Gainsborough attended the local Old Grammar School in Sudbury, truly an old school as it was founded in 1491 and run by his uncle, The Rev Humphry Burroughs, his mother’s brother, who was a clergyman of the Church of England.
Thomas’s artistic ability was obvious from an early age, a talent perhaps inherited from his gifted mother who was known for her elegant flower-paintings. His father struggled to bring up his family of nine children as his shroud-making business failed failing and John decided to send the boy off to London at the tender age of thirteen in 1740-1 to become a pupil of Hubert Francis Gravelot. He was a French draughtsman and engraver who taught at the St Martin’s Lane Academy. Gravelot taught drawing using dressed-up dolls. One of these 18th C dolls survives in the British Museum complete with wardrobe. Gainsborough might well have used this doll to practice his renowned skills for 16
painting fabrics in his later portraits. Francis Hayman also taught at the Academy and he too was destined to have a marked influence on the young artist, not always to Gainsborough’s advantage, as Hayman was notorious for his love of spending his leisure in taverns, clubs and brothels and encouraging Thomas to do the same.
Three or four years later, while still a teenager, Gainsborough was ambitious enough to set up his own studio in rented rooms in Hatton Garden, Clerkenwell.
And in no time at all he was married.
Although Gainsborough now lived in London he retained a strong link with his birthplace. Sudbury was then a quiet Suffolk market town. Rich meadows and gentle hills bordered tranquil valleys and the clear waters of the River Stour flowed by banks bordered with willows. He loved dearly the countryside of his birth and retained his affection for it throughout his life.
Tradition has it that he first met Margaret, his future wife, when 17.
he was out sketching in the woods, his usual practice whenever he returned home. He was concentrating on drawing a flock of sheep grazing beneath a copse of leafy trees when a pretty girl came into view.
As Margaret Burr was a frequent visitor to the area when staying with the James Unwin family the two young people might well have met this way. Equally, it is likely that James Unwin was pulling a few strings in the background.
Thomas and James were known to each other at a very early stage in their lives as both families were engaged in the manufacture of cloth and lived close-by. Later James, a brisk little man by all accounts, became a wealthy and influential banker who resided in an impressively grand house, Wootton Lodge, in Staffordshire. At first an intimate old friend, James Unwin later became Gainsborough’s trusted business adviser. Indeed, so close was this relationship that Susan Sloman suggests in her excellent book GAINSBOROUGH IN BATH, 2002 (pp26-7) that Unwin might 18.
have been responsible for arranging Gainsborough’s marriage to the natural daughter of the Duke of Beaufort. And the reason he could have done so was that Unwin was personally associated with the Badminton-based business affairs of the Duke from 1737, ideally placed to be aware of his decision to make a generous annuity to his daughter in 1744.
Unwin later became involved in shady financial dealings involving the Badminton estate and his reputation suffered accordingly. Although Gainsborough remained on friendly terms with him personally, he rarely called on Unwin’s services after 1762. 19.
In later life Margaret was to become known for her penny-pinching attitude concerning the family’s finances. She must at this stage have been fully aware of her value as a bride bringing a handsome dowry of £200 per year to her marriage.
Gainsborough’s ambitious move to open his own studio in London had not been a success. At nineteen he was recognized as an artist of considerable talent but he was penniless, with no financial support likely to come from his family.
Margaret’s money offered him an immediate source of income sufficiently generous to cover the needs of a young couple setting up house in the mid 18th C and offering him time to live comfortably while he endeavoured to build up his reputation as a painter. As much as he always preferred painting landscapes throughout his life there was little demand for country scenes at this time and he soon realized that “face-painting,” as he disdainfully dismissed portrait-painting, was to prove far more lucrative. 20
The average age for men to marry in mid 18th C was twenty- seven. Why, then, did Thomas Gainsborough commit himself to the serious responsibilities and limitations of marriage at the youthful age of nineteen?
The reason is not so difficult to discover. At eighteen Thomas was described as being uncommonly good-looking with refined features and singularly brilliant eyes. His pleasant manners and natural courtesy were much admired.
Margaret was a most attractive girl impressing one old villager in Sudbury on seeing her for the first time to declare that “Master Tommy’s wife was handsomer than Madam Kedington” who was at the time the noted belle of the neighbourhood.
Clearly there was an immediate physical attraction between the two, whatever the circumstances of their meeting, arranged or otherwise, and it was a fortunate choice for Gainsborough, given 21
the uncertainty of his income as a young artist.
Thomas and Margaret were married in 1746 at Dr Keith’s Mayfair Chapel, London, a venue well-known for the celebration of clandestine weddings.
And this might well have been a secret marriage on two counts: Margaret appears to have been pregnant at the time. More significantly, the Gainsborough family (except perhaps for his mother Mary who might have converted to her husband’s faith on marriage) were firmly nonconformist in their beliefs, and might have objected strongly to the match because of Margaret’s illegitimacy.
21st C
Speaking of weddings, I was married in the stone church standing opposite the A G Ogilvie High School in Hobart where I suffered the indignity of wearing a horribly unflattering brown uniform for some years. My wedding dress was virginal white of course - we were all virgins in 1952 before the advent of the contraceptive
pill. We were vigorously guarded by our mothers and their constant command “Never let him touch you below the waist!”
The last time I saw my white gown was in the 1970’s when it was included in a display of wedding dresses exhibited in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania. (Dear reader: I married the Director). My dress was made of satin, sleeveless, with a ruched bodice and a matching long-sleeved fitted jacket fastened with a row of buttons shaped liked pearls. The marriage lasted 25 years. I don’t know about the dress. 23
18th C
There is no account of Margaret’s wedding day but brides in mid 18th C often wore white or silver gowns and carried a bouquet of flowers and fruit, often made of wax. When diarist James Boswell married his cousin Margaret Montgomery a few years later he carried up to Scotland with him in his coach her wedding gown of silvery-white fabric. Not to be outdone he dressed himself from head to foot in an all white outfit before sliding a plain gold wedding band on to her finger.
Gainsborough’s portrait of his wife painted on her 30th birthday does not show a wedding ring but she had put on a lot of weight in the intervening years and perhaps it no longer fitted her finger. Queen Charlotte wore a silver gown for her marriage to George II1 in 1761 and another less fortunate bride was appalled when she caught sight of decorative waxen strawberries in her bouquet melting in the heat of the fire at her wedding celebration.
Through his close friendship with James Unwin Gainsborough was fully aware before proposing marriage that his future bride enjoyed an income of £200 per year which was, in 1746, a generous sum. Moreover, at that time a wife’s property following marriage automatically became her husband’s so the impecunious artist’s financial situation improved markedly overnight. After their marriage day Margaret’s annuity arrived in his bank account twice a year as regularly as clockwork and by law it was his to spend as he chose. Life for women in the 18th C compared with mine two centuries later was unbelievably difficult in so many ways.
Margaret Burr Gainsborough was just eighteen on the first night of her honeymoon and her bridegroom only nineteen. But for neither of them was this a new experience. He had previously enjoyed the experience of undressing his bride: she was already pregnant.
Mention knickers, panties or underpants to Mrs Gainsborough and she would have been deeply puzzled. Georgian women enjoyed the freedom of going commando or being knackeries under their voluminous skirts. Drawers were not worn in England until the 19th C. Accidental exposure of bare thighs and even bottoms on occasion was not unknown owing to the difficulties of managing the hoop, so fashionable an undergarment at the time.
When Susan Sibbald accompanied her French school mistress on a country walk in the fields of Landsdown in Bath in the 18th C they came to a wooden stile.
“I’ll go over first,” said Mademoiselle, with one eye on a local lad 26.
hovering nearby, “And you stand behind me and spread out your skirts so the boy won’t see me.”
The plump little French woman took so long clambering over the stile that Susan turned away to see what the boy was carrying, thoughtlessly dropping her own skirts and leaving Mademoiselle half way over, her hoop rising to expose bare thighs for all to see. She was furious with the schoolgirl and scolded her severely.
These 18th C hoops were difficult to control in a strong wind and even turned inside out on occasion. It was fashionable to push the hoop to one side when walking sedately in town, provocatively exposing a glimpse of petticoats and a hint of a slender ankle from time to time.
One smartly dressed woman tilted up her hoop in this manner just as a flock of sheep was being driven past her. At that moment an old ram escaped and running onto the pavement collided with 27.
the woman, thrusting his horns up inside her hoop and entangling himself in her petticoats. Screaming in panic, she let the hoop fall, imprisoning the creature. She tried to flee with the desperate ram bleating, the shepherd panicking, his sheepdog barking and a mob gathering, shouting advice. Finally separated from the ram, the woman’s highly fashionable yellow gown and petticoats, bare thighs, stockings and shoes were covered in the terrified creature’s filthy excrement.
A crinoline-hooped skirt offered discreet cover if a woman needed to relieve herself when travelling in a coach. By using a bordalou, which was a gravy-boat-shaped porcelain container held between the thighs beneath the skirt, the deed was done, and the world was none the wiser.
The absence of knickers raises a question when considering how women in Margaret’s time managed their periods. According to a conversation I had with one of the staff 28.
at the Fashion Museum in Bath recently 18th C women fastened a washable rag pad to their shifts using straight metal-headed pins as safety pins had not then been invented.
Throughout the ages various areas of the female body have been held to be the most erotic. Breasts were considered to be so in the 17th C but when Margaret married Thomas Gainsborough the legs of the female attracted the most erotic excitement and continued to do so for the rest of the 18th C. Later, when the Gainsboroughs were living in The Circus in Bath the following satirical advice was widely published:
“Make your petticoats short
That a hoop eight yards wide
May decently shew how your
Garters are tied.”
Garters, of course, were tied over the knee at the time.
Hoops were sometimes put to bizarre uses. On one historic occasion in the year of Margaret’s marriage a young man was 29.
fleeing from pursuers after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and he took refuge in his financee’s family home. Hearing his enemies at the door the girl lifted her skirts and gestured to him to crawl inside her crinoline. Hidden under her hoop skirt he remained undetected. 30.
21ST C
Last night I held a drinks party in Gainsborough’s House. Twenty-two friends attended. This was the first party I had given for ages. There were several writers present. One has written two wonderful books on JEWELS and COLOUR. I introduced another, a scholar who is an authority on several well-known 17th C individuals, to a friend who writes on matters relating to conservation. They discovered many interests in common. I admire another friend of my vintage who is off in a day or two to spend a year in Hong Kong in order to write a biography of an eccentric millionaire who died recently. Another guest studies an unusual subject: medicine used in the Royal Navy in the 18th - 19th C and another, with her colleague, has introduced a new venture in Bath by running writers’ workshops and lectures for and by authors. Two guests, both neighbours in the Circus, are highly successful interior designers, and one friend makes the 31
most delicious cakes, An invitation to tea at her place is an indulgence much coveted.
This room, so familiar to Margaret Gainsborough two centuries ago, rang with the sound of laughter and conversation. Thomas Gainsborough was the one who really enjoyed using this parlour to entertain friends. Margaret was much less hospitable, criticising her husband for his excessive generosity. I often think, as I close the original wooden shutters over the windows facing the Circus Green in the evening, how often the Gainsboroughs and their girls must have performed the same action, their hands then mine, two hundred and fifty years later, moving the same wooden panels to conceal much the same view. 32.
18TH C

When Margaret rose on the morning of her wedding she would have bathed her face and hands in a china bowl of water poured from a matching china jug on a wash-stand in her bedroom in London if she were lucky, otherwise water from the pump in the yard would have had to suffice.
Cleanliness of the upper classes in Georgian England is debatable. Clean linen was important to the young man about town. Boswell was prepared to pay for the privilege of wearing freshly laundered linen daily at a time when he was clearly pressed for cash, but as far as bathing is concerned there is little evidence of the existence of domestic baths.
The house at No 1 The Circus, was, at the time the Gainsboroughs lived here, occupied by one David Nagle. In a highly detailed inventory of the contents of that house in his time a basin-stand is listed in each of the best bedrooms, along with the 33
“necessary” or commode or night-stool, and the ever present chamber pot is listed in the lesser bedrooms. But there is no mention of a bath anywhere in the large house.
Servants and the lower classes used “The Necessary House“, also known as the “Little House“, as a lavatory. This was a hut built in the yard with a wooden bench seat with a hole or perhaps two, below which stood tins that were removed and replaced at regular intervals by the night-soil men and their horse-drawn carts.
Deodorants did not exist and even fastidious individuals were likely to suffer from their own offensive body odour, men especially when wearing layer upon layer of heavy fabric in over-heated Assembly rooms lit by hundreds of candles which gave off intense heat in crowded conditions.
Lice were a serious problem. Even if a wealthy lady managed to keep herself lice-free, she might easily become infected on a visit to a close friend. 34
The first garment Margaret reached for when she had dried her face and hands on the morning after her wedding was her chemise, or shift, usually made from linen with a drawstring threaded through the lace-edged top. This sat low on her shoulders and fell to her knees. The shift had full elbow-length sleeves with lace-edged frills sometimes visible below the sleeves of her gown.
Over this she wore an underskirt or petticoat usually made of cambric, dimity, flannel or calico. Sometimes this garment was so heavily quilted that older women could not bear the weight of it although it proved a valuable winter-warmer. It was cut to a narrow shape and reached to the small of the leg. This petticoat was known as a “dicky”.
Over this she wore the corset and finally the dress.
Throughout Margaret’s life from childhood onwards she had to endure the discomforts of the rigid compressing corset or stays stiffened by cane, whalebone or steel. The corset could not be put 35
on without assistance because it was fastened at the back by threading lacing through silk eyelet holes which had to be strongly over-sewn to take the pressure as metal eyelets were then
unknown. Margaret kept her balance by holding on to the bed-post as her maid pulled the laces as tightly as possible.
Some relief from the torture imposed by the dreaded corset was to be found in a loose un-boned bodice known as “jumps” but this garment was only worn in the privacy of the home or when pregnant to disguise the growing bump.
Margaret and her friends loved their tiny waists transformed by the corset but hated the discomfort of the rigid garment which rubbed the upper arms until they were sore and painfully constricted their midriffs. There was some relief to be anticipated as they grew older and stouter when extra side-lacings were added discreetly to their corsets.
21st C
I remember as a child sharing a cabin with my mother on a ship crossing the tempestuous waters of Bass Strait from Burnie to Melbourne in the 1930’s. She removed her all-in-one tightly
Constricting boned corset with a huge sigh of relief before undressing me and tying brown wrapping paper round my body with string which she convinced me would undoubtedly prevent any feeling of seasickness. It was the fist time I had seen this fearsome flesh-pink corset that practically stood alone when taken off.
Like most women of her class Margaret would probably have had no more than two corsets, her old ones, much favoured because they were well-worn and almost comfortable, and her “best” stays, a form of rigid torture.
The same economies applied to expensive quilted petticoats or underskirts - one old and one new seemed to be sufficient. With a virile husband like Thomas to be contended with, perhaps Margaret was grateful for the voluminous neck to ankle nightgowns then fashionable. Indeed, some experts believe that women remained faithful to these ungainly tent-like garments until the introduction of efficient methods of birth control many generations later permitted them to adopt more seductive garments to wear in bed.
After all, if a woman had already delivered twelve children a baker’s dozen was not likely to be high on her wish list. 38.
Margaret Gainsborough would have recycled her dresses like all her contemporaries living at a similar financial level, often instructing the dressmaker to change the shape of a sleeve or neckline to freshen its appearance. When the garment was too worn for further she might cut it up and make it into a workbag or dusters, or give to her maid. One woman described to a friend how she had cut off the worn feet of a pair of fine worsted stockings and pulled them up over her legs and thinner stockings to keep her knees warm under her long skirts in winter.
Men, too, were forever repairing, renewing or recycling their clothes. The young Rev Woodforde paid two shillings and sixpence to have his favourite morning dressing gown turned inside out and remade. At the same time he actually bought from his own brother a pair of second-hand gloves. 39.

Recycling of this kind continues today. A woman married to a diplomat told me recently how she and her colleagues survived dinner parties in huge but freezing country mansions by cutting out the crotch and feet of tights, pulling them over the head to the waist and thrusting their arms through the legs. In that way they were able to wear fashionable silk evening dresses with low-cut necklines and three quarter sleeves without freezing to death in winter.
From the point of view of 18th C servants, both male and female, a gift of discarded clothing from the master or mistress’s wardrobe was often regarded as an important part of their wages.
In fact, because female fashions remained similar across the social classes at this time, a comely lady’s maid serving a wealthy amily and dressed in her mistress’s cast-offs might easily be mistaken. initially. for a member of the family.
Male servants were expensive to employ. Their wages were
higher for one thing, and their costly and often ornate livery, made up in the employers’ own colours, had to be provided in the form of coat, waistcoat and hat. The man was required to procure his own shoes, stockings, breeches and shirts. 41
A portrait of Margaret by Gainsborough painted early in their marriage shows her as a slip of a girl but over the next twelve years when he painted a delightful portrait of his wife aged thirty, she had put on a lot of weight. She appears as a plump, attractive woman with a thick neck and double chin. She wears her hair in an unusually natural style: the dark brown tresses combed severely back from her face, revealing a marked widow’s peak, completely free of false pads of hair or powder. Considering her splendidly expensive dress, this natural style is unexpected at a time when towering head-dresses of fashionable women were so tall that a wearer was sometimes forced to sit on the floor of her carriage in order to reach a destination with the creation intact.
Her husband, on the other hand, favoured wearing a wig from his early twenties as his self-portrait painted in 1750 reveals.
Gainsborough would have owned more than one wig, as each had to be sent out regularly to be dressed by a barber. One young 42
fashionable man of the cloth owned at least three wigs and ordered a new one to be delivered in time for him to wear to a special dinner the following day. He was delighted when the new wig arrived in its box on time and beautifully curled, the height of fashion in 1774.

Keeping up with fashion was especially important to women in the 18th C and the latest mode was followed slavishly, although some women, the writer Fanny Burney for instance, found the constant attention to detail boring in the extreme.
Margaret Gainsborough was quite the opposite, the equivalent of a WAG today, known for her interest in fashion, often criticized by her husband’s friends for dressing far above her station, but defending her love of expensive clothing by claiming to be a Prince’s daughter and therefore entitled to dress elegantly. Gifts of clothing were always welcome from her point of view, especially if they came from London.
A certain Dr W Dodd and his wife became friends of the Gainsboroughs when they were living in Bath. Dodd was a popular orator in a chapel at Bath and tutor to the fifth Lord Chesterfield. He sat to Gainsborough for his portrait. When it was finished Mrs Dodd was so pleased with the result that she sent Margaret a generous gift from London: an expensive silk
gown, a present which could not fail to please.
Before marriage young women were expected to display themselves in the most attractive and fashionable manner affordable by their parents. Married women could relax a little, dress less modishly, although Margaret never appeared to lower her standards throughout her marriage perhaps because she clearly regarded herself as an aristocrat and the aristocracy were expected to exaggerate the latest fashions and in this way add to the pleasure of the lower classes by parading their expensive finery on every public occasion.
Women of means were deeply conscious of the latest fashion and
in Bath they were spoiled for choice as far as elegant shops were concerned.
Some years after the Gainsboroughs left the city to live in London Jane Austin’s aunt, Mrs Leigh Perritt, was accused of stealing lace from a shop in Bath Street, Bath. She faced a terrifying sentence of either death or deportation as a result of what proved finally to be a cruel scam involving the shop’s owner, a Mrs Gregory. The case was dismissed after some months of rigorous investigation, causing considerable anguish to all the family and a cost in legal fees of over £1000 to the victim’s husband.
Surprisingly, given the reluctance of women to wear glasses today, spectacles were worn and were considered highly fashionable in the year that the Gainsboroughs came to live in The Circus in 1766. 45
But here we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to 1746 when the young Gainsboroughs were married. Did they enjoy a visit away on a honeymoon trip? We don’t know. But they certainly did not go abroad at any stage in their marriage - a surprising fact considering how beneficial, not to say enjoyable, a European tour might have been from the artist‘s point of view, if not from Margaret‘s.
21st C
My honeymoon in 1952 was bizarre indeed. My husband was deeply attracted to another woman and like Diana, the Princess of Wales, I could honestly claim that there were three of us in that marriage, especially so on our honeymoon, spent on remote Flinders Island in Bass Strait, that treacherous sea lying between Australia and Tasmania. The fact that the other woman was long dead made little difference: we spent every day, morning to night, exploring the area where she had spent unhappy years of her life. Her name was Trucannini, and she was the last Tasmanian Aborigine to be born and to die in the land of her birth. And the site we trawled over was the old 19th C Aboriginal Settlement at Flinders Island set up by the British Government and presided over by the English-born George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of the Aborigines who, incidentally, returned to Britain and is buried in Bath. But that is another story and set in another time.
21st C
Here I am today sitting on the fourth floor of the Tate Gallery at St Ives in Cornwall. I am in the café, cappuccino steaming on the table in front of me, a superb view over the slate grey rooftops of houses crammed into the picturesque town below. In the other direction I watch white-crested waves crashing onto the golden sands of Porthmeor Beach.
A four hour journey by train from Bath Spa brought me here in comfort in a first-class seat. This journey would have been long and tedious, one of great hardship and danger in Margaret’s day. However, had the Gainsboroughs ever visited St Ives I have no doubt he at least would have been charmed by its beauty and the unique quality of the light which continues to attract artists to live and work here.
The guest artist exhibiting at the Tate today is Dexter Dalwood, born a few miles from Bath in Bristol in 1960. He works up his enormous colourful interiors from small paper collages made 48
from cuttings taken from magazines and art and history books.
I wonder if his collages have been influenced by those of Mrs Mary Delaney, the 18th C woman who, at the advanced age of seventy-two began to create botanical collages, a thousand of them before she died in 1788, all celebrated for their beauty and accuracy.
18th C
Margaret Gainsborough knew this famous socialite, friend of the King George III and his Queen. Mrs Delaney visited the Gainsboroughs shortly after they moved to Bath to view one of the artist’s exhibitions in 1760.
Later, in 1766 when they moved to the newly - built house up the hill Gainsborough held one of his most important exhibitions using the large front room on the first floor overlooking the Circus as his display area. In the days before cameras and
television channels 18th C artists used every means available to advertise their work. Eminent painters like Gainsborough held
regular exhibitions in their own homes, charging an entrance fee of a shilling a head.
To make an impact on society and to attract affluent clients the portraitist might offer to paint the likeness of some famous individual - an actor like David Garrick for instance, or a noted beauty, charging no fee but stipulating that the painting should be available for exhibition for a certain period.
In Gainsborough’s case he appears to have decided to paint THE BLUE BOY in 1766 as the centrepiece of this, one of his most important exhibitions. By choosing a non-famous sitter (the boy is believed to have been Jonathan Buttall, the son of a friend and patron) and by using a great quantity of the most expensive pigment available, the colour blue, in the most extravagant manner, he managed to bring off an artistic “coup” of the highest order. Both fellow artists and the general public were deeply impressed by the painting of THE BLUE BOY, probably the work most likely to be correctly identified by the man in the 50.
street today as being the work of Gainsborough.
Initially he included the image of a dog in this full length portrait but before it went on show for reasons unknown he painted out the animal which can be seen now only through the use of infra-red techniques. The painting is in the collection of the Huntington Library in California.
21st C
Up to London to stay two nights in The Sloane Club in Chelsea where I have been a member for twenty odd years. Today I am visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum, and I have become a Friend. Now I can enjoy the peace and quiet of the Friends’ Lounge and rest in comfort in between viewing the splendid new galleries and exhibitions.
I am shocked by the lack of decent catering facilities in this marvellous Museum and have complained to the Chairman of Trustees and to the Director about long queues (often 30 to 40 people standing holding trays of hot food rapidly cooling while waiting in line to pay for the privilege) and the lack of a proper restaurant. Compared to excellent facilities provided in other major institutions in London the V and A should be thoroughly ashamed of itself.
On my return to Bath I faced a sad day. The white flowering cherry tree standing in the garden for the last hundred years or so 52
was put to the sword. Several large limbs had to be lopped as they were declared a danger after the high winds of last winter, and the canopy had to be reduced. The old Prunus is the subject of a conservation order and the tree surgeon has to be approved by the local authority. He took his life into his hands, girdled himself with a safety harness anchored to the massive trunk and climbed to the top of the dear old tree to begin work with chainsaw and handsaw. He removed about a third of the tree, a rare example of a Prunus, he told me, to reach such an age. In all the years we have lived here this tree has produced a mass of frilly white blossom about Easter time, a picture enjoyed by all our neighbours who overlook the garden. It is a sorry sight today, wounds gaping, but with a promise of new growth as spring approaches. 18th C
In 1746 the young married couple set up house together in London but it was not long before Thomas realized that he could not find enough work to continue to meet the expenses of living in the capital and after Margaret sadly lost her first child Mary, a toddler, in March 1748, we find them moving back to live in Sudbury the following year.
Here Margaret was suddenly immersed in the activities of the extended Gainsborough Family. Thomas’s brothers were a colourful and lively lot, two in particular vigorously intent on making their mark in the world. Another, Matthias, was less fortunate. When young he ran from a room holding a fork, tripped and fell. He died when the prongs of the fork pierced his forehead.
Margaret’s brother-in-law John, or “Scheming Jack” as he was known locally, was a highly eccentric but gifted inventor who was determined to build a set of wings to enable him to fly through the air from the top of a summerhouse in Sudbury. A crowd gathered 54
on the appointed day to watch the flight. Unfortunately, John chose to construct his wings from heavy metal. Strapping them on, he flapped his arms up and down several times before jumping off the roof and dropping like a stone into a nearby ditch, defeated, humiliated but unhurt.
He did, however, earn both official recognition and financial reward for his invention of a time piece in 1763.
Margaret’s brother-in-law Humphrey became a dissenting Minister. He, too, won public admiration as a gifted engineer whose experiments on the steam engine were far ahead of his time.
The Gainsboroughs appear to be an unusually creative family but what the young Mrs Gainsborough made of her father-in-law when she first met him can only be guessed at. By the 1730’s his
once prosperous woollen business had been reduced to the making of burial shrouds and was in serious decline, but in its heyday John Gainsborough presented a colourful figure in Sudbury, 55
where he was well-known as quite a dandy.
In full dress he wore a sword at his side and he was adept at using it, fencing equally well with the right or the left hand. At its height his business required him to travel frequently to Holland and to France. He was known to his colleagues as being notably liberal towards his employees at a time when this attitude was rare.
Gainsborough senior wore his hair carefully dressed and powdered and was remarkable for the excessive whiteness of his teeth in an age when teeth in deplorable condition was the norm, if they survived at all.
Many a famous portrait in the 18th C is notable for its serious expression. A closed mouth hid discoloured or missing teeth and teeth, a situation which presented a serious problem to Georgian society at all levels.
Prior to the 18th C sugar was a highly expensive luxury and honey was used as a sweetener. When sugar imported from the West 56
Indies became cheaper and was used more frequently in food preparation the teeth of the population at large began to suffer and those of the affluent classes suffered most severely.
One aristocratic young woman about to be married was described by another as having very bad teeth which, she acknowledged, was a deeply objectionable aspect in a wife and one bound to grow worse in time.
Few 18th C portraits reveal the teeth of the sitter and for a good reason: even the most sought after beauties of the day were likely to have missing or badly discoloured teeth. Eminent portraitists
like Gainsborough preferred to paint the subject with, at best, a slight smile with lips carefully concealing the often appalling state of the teeth. The best-known portraits Gainsborough painted of his own wife and children reveal no sign of their teeth: in each case the lips are closed.
And this is true of the vast majority of the hundreds of portraits he painted. Among the few exceptions is his painting of the youth 57
THE PORTMINSTER BOY which was undertaken when he lived in this house in the Circus and which depicts the boy with parted lips revealing his teeth. The boy is obviously young and wholesome and so are his teeth.
There were of course many Georgians whose teeth were healthy. Dentistry specialist Professor D A Luke, Professor of Clinical Oral Biology, points out that in one group of 18thC skeletons recently recovered from Spitalfield’s Church of Enland, London, scientists discovered a considerable amount of tooth-wear and some gum disease but not a lot of tooth decay.
He suggests that a second reason for not painting a smiling subject might have been the difficulty a sitter experienced in maintaining a smile for long periods. Early 19th C photographs show similar non-smiling subjects. Speed photography, a relatively recent technique, has enable and popularised the smiling photographic portrait so familiar to us now. 58
Whatever the reason a serious, non-smiling portrait draws the viewer to focus on the eyes which then dominate the face.
For the Gainsborough family acquaintance with the dentist was to be avoided at all costs. Fifteen year old Georgian Betsey Wynne, then staying with her family in Moravia, wrote in her diary that she had been to church one Sunday morning, enjoyed the music and then had a tooth removed and “suffered excessively” when the tooth-drawer of excellent reputation had a great deal of trouble extracting it. No anaesthetic, no pain-killer of any kind was administered so it is not surprising that young Betsey and her contemporaries preferred to put up with a raging toothache for years rather than face the pain and devastation of losing perhaps a central front tooth and with it a beguiling smile.
In 1728 when Margaret Burr Gainsborough was born the first
description of a method of filling teeth was published.
False teeth or dentures had been introduced a few years earlier. They were made of wood or ivory and were less than attractive. 58
There was also a nasty trade in real teeth which were obtained by buying the living teeth of the poverty-stricken young. Established dentists offered this service to their wealthy clients. The horror and pain experienced by the donors operated upon without any form of anaesthetic can hardly be imagined.
By the time Margaret Gainsborough had moved to Bath the professionally qualified Italian Bartholomew Ruspini had arrived in town.
Advertising himself accurately in the local press as a surgeon-dentist, “an operator for the teeth,” he was the same age as Margaret and had studied under Louis XXV’s personal dentist. He was modern in his approach and innovative, one of the first to promote preventative measures in dentistry. He practised in rented rooms down the hill from The Circus, in Queen Square, but called at the homes of his more affluent patients to perform whatever was necessary.
If the Gainsborough family needed it he could fill a hollow tooth 60
with lead or gold and he offered to provide missing teeth, fixing them permanently, always using human teeth for this purpose.
Ruspini advertised his own brand of toothpaste which was astonishingly expensive at three shillings a pot at a time when a pound of butter cost two pence halfpenny and a pound of bacon seven pence.
He claimed his particular brand of paste not only preserved but also whitened teeth - maybe Margaret’s father-in-law used a similar preparation to preserve the brilliance of his legendary smile. 61
21ST C
Speaking of matters medical: last week I had a cataract removed from my right eye. Like most patients in my position I was deeply worried about having my eyesight threatened by any number of sharp-pointed instruments. In the event it was not nearly as nasty as I had imagined. In the operating theatre my eye was anaethetized but I remained awake, conscious of the whole procedure, the unfamiliar noises and conversations of the medical staff around me. A kind nurse held my hand throughout and I felt no pain whatsoever. The cataract was removed, a lens inserted, and after twenty minutes I was wheeled back to my room in the clinic and left for home two hours later. The following day a miracle occurred: when the eye shield was removed I had perfect 20/20 sight in my right eye. I could see brilliantly, details I had not seen for years. The left eye will be treated in the same way in four weeks time.
The rapid advance in medical technology is nothing short of 62
miraculous. When I think of what might have been Margaret
Gainsborough’s dire future had she suffered from cataracts 250 years ago, I thank my lucky stars I live in this high-tech age.. 63
18th C
Margaret lost not only her first infant, Mary, in 1748, but her father-in-law too, who died that year aged 65.
Her mother-in-law had married at the age of fourteen. She was an admirable housewife with a cultivated mind, noted for her ability in flower-painting and she actively encouraged Thomas’s early attempts at drawing. She survived her husband’s death in 1748, living long enough to enjoy the outstanding success of her son’s painting career. She and Margaret were closely associated as in-laws for twenty-three years before she died in 1769 when Margaret and Thomas were living in The Circus in Bath.
Presumably the elder Mrs Gainsborough supported Margaret through the period when she gave birth to her two surviving 63
daughters, Mary (named after the lost child but often called Molly) born in 1750 and Margaret, nicknamed Peggy, born in 1751. Both girls were born when Margaret and Thomas were living in Sudbury on their return from London. Margaret was 22 and 23. Unusually for a woman of her age she had no more children at a time when large families were normal. The probable reason for this lack of conception becomes clear later in her life.
George III and his wife Charlotte set their subjects an excellent example: not only were they a happily married couple but they produced fifteen children.
Contraception was notoriously unreliable. A potion made of the bark of the poplar tree was believed to be effective. Condoms made of linen were used occasionally but usually only as a protection against venereal disease. They were available in three sizes from women who ran elite brothels catering to upper class men in London and all major cities and spa towns like Bath. 64
Condoms made of sheep gut were introduced in the 1750’s but were not popular with men. When James Boswell first used one after picking up a girl in St James Park in London he described it as like wearing armour.
Margaret Gainsborough had lost her first child in infancy but had she suffered an unwanted pregnancy, abortion was a possibility. Although it was a statutory offence until 1803, the law was only seriously applied after the fourth month of pregnancy.
Like most women of her age Margaret was fully aware of the permissive world her husband inhabited. Men like Gainsborough and his friends were expected to drink heavily, pass the night with prostitutes from time to time and speak openly of these activities in the company of respectable women who were fully aware that a
sober, sexually-modest man was regarded by society as being
insufferably unfashionable and dull. Thomas Gainsborough was never in danger of being so described.
Even young unmarried girls like Mary and Margaret 65
Gainsborough in their teens were fully aware of what went on in a man’s world and they spoke of it frankly among themselves, as their letters and diaries reveal.
Their father adored attractive women, particularly those of the lower classes, and found it difficult to curb his impulses despite the danger he knew to be found in encounters with girls working the streets and taverns of London and Bath, as we shall see.