The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 116-120


The Gainsboroughs arrived in Bath at the end of 1759. The Bath Journal was boastfully patriotic: the British had conquered Quebec! Bath City Council sent an illuminated address to the King congratulating him on his army's success in "North America" by taking the capital of the extensive province of Canada. In the same newspaper two weeks later Bath Council offered a generous bounty of two guineas to any "able-bodied landsman" who voluntarily entered the King's service in the Regiment of Royal Volunteers.

The Gainsborough girls might have been more interested in an advertisement in the same journal inviting them to visit the Market Place to see "The Great Christmas Loaf." This was an annual event in whichMr Brookmen at The Jolly Butchers amused his customers by baking a giant loaf measuring twelve feet long, over five feet in circumference and weighing four hundred pounds.

At this time Britain and Fance were engaged in a bitter struggle over possession of North America. Many families had relatives involved in the war and the press was full of reports from the front, often delayed for weeks, of course, as editors had to rely on sailing ships crossing the Atlantic to carry news of the latest battles.

Bath was at the height of its fame as a spa town. Every winter London's most fashionable individuals crowded the streets surrounding the notorious Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms in which gossip and rumour ran rife and folly, wit and wealth ruled the day. Outstanding authors and playwrights like Sheridan, Goldsmith and Fanny Burney drew on the extreme behaviour of many of these colourful individuals who provided material for their successful novels and plays.

Bath was a winter destination, fashionable from October onwards, but by the end of May everyone of distinction had fled, leaving the resident population of about 15,000 to complain about the heavy humidity of summer. James Quin, the actor who became Gainsborough's friend, famously described Bath as being "the cradle of age and a fine slope to the grave." Today some residents believe that nothing has changed in the intervening years, choosing to ignore the increasing influence of the University of Bath and its thousands of young resident students. Nevertheless, an old friend of mine always refers to Bath as Toy Town. "Let's get out of Toy Town and go to London," he cries.

Gainsborough's decision to reside in Bath indicated his reluctant acceptance of the fact that, in order to make a comfortable living for himself, his demanding wife and his two young daughters, he had to devote himself to a life dominated by what he described despairingly as the drudgery of face-painting.

Strange as it might seem now, given his ability to achieve a remarkable likeness (a talent envied by most of his competitors and one which thrust him to the top of his profession) he took no pleasure in the process. There was never any doubt that his real love was reserved for painting landscapes. The sad truth was that in mid 18th C England there was virtually no market for his work based on the natural world he loved so dearly. He faced a dilemma on coming to Bath but really had no choice in the matter. Margaret's legacy was sufficient to provide a basic living while the family lived in the country town of Ipswich, but no longer. Gainsborough had no option but to comply with Margaret's constant urging to promote himself as a portrait painter. To do this successfully he needed to find a central location in premises large enough to house his family as well as providing himself with a painting room and an exhibition room spacious enough to display his full-length portraits to advantage.

Margaret's aristocratic connections were now to come into play and it was not long before the elite socialites living in and around Bath were making appointments with the newly-arrived artist. Gainsborough complained frequently that 'gentlemen' were his enemies in the sense that his painting time and energy were exhausted by having to paint their portraits. He clearly preferred to devote his time to painting the rural scenes and folk as he observed them in the countryside, but he realized Margaret was right and he was forced back to his easel to paint faces, and found himself on the road to fame and fortune.

Margaret's major contribution to her husband's life appears to have been in providing a stable base for the family. And there is no doubt that Gainsborough loved his family. However, domestic life in his eyes was linked forever with the constant demand to produce portraits, more and more of them as his fame increased, while all he wanted was freedom to paint the landscapes he loved. Always a rebel in his soul he escaped whenever he could from the discipline Margaret imposed upon him at home to indulge the darker side of his character in the inns and alleyways frequented by a lower social order.

Pp 114-115 16 August 2010

21st C

Over the past few weeks I have celebrated the big O birthday. I spent five lovely days in London staying at the Sloane Club in Chelsea, a present from my daughter. Wearing an Australian vintage gold brooch (a gift from my son and his partner) I sat down to lunch at The Ritz with my partner Iann. We were guests of two close friends, Charles and Henry. I can't imagine a more delightful setting in which to celebrate a major birthday. Neither can I have imagined I would ever reach the big O. I'll leave you to work out which one. Like all my contemporaries I don't feel old. But when I sit at my dressing table facing south and look in the mirror with the sun shining on my face I can't believe that that old woman staring back at me is me.

Didn't get far with my lengthy correspondence with the local MP, Don Foster, the Council and First Bus, protesting at the lack of what I consider an essential .piece of equipment: an illuminated departure board in the recently built Bath Bus Terminal to tell me which bus I need to catch to wherever I am going. Don Foster and Bath and North East Somerset Council responded promptly, making full enquiries, but the organization responsible for provision of this major item, First Bus, replied NO, they can't afford it, although BANES points out that it was included in the plans originally passed by the Council's planning department. A friend suggests a blackboard and a piece of chalk might be the solution.

PP 105 - 113 15 August 2010

18th C
Gainsborough's burgeoning career in Ipswich led him to make many good friends drawn from all levels of society. Together with a reputation for being convivial, generous and kind, he was much loved by pretty well all who knew him. Margaret's reputation did not serve her as well. In many ways they appeared to be an incompatible couple. He was generous, she was frugal to the point of meanness and was notably unwelcoming as far as his friends were concerned. In the twelve years since their wedding day she had gained a lot of weight and although Gainsborough declared he loved her dearly "My wife is weak but good," he wrote, admitting at the same time that she was "never much formed to humour my Happiness," but believed there was nothing he could do to alter her attitude.

In the portrait he painted of Margaret at this time she wears no wedding ring. Was she making a statement? Or had she simply outgrown her wedding band? Gainsborough includes in this affectionate portrait of his wife a spray of honeysuckle, a flower long associated with romance, love and eroticism. In the fens of East Anglia honeysuckle, otherwise known as woodbine, if displayed indoors, was believed to induce erotic dreams in young girls. Gainsborough's decision to include honeysuckle in this painting might have reflected the couple's first embraces spent among the scented hedgerows of the countryside. Whatever his reason, inclusion of this flower, "the Bonds of Love," as it is sometimes called, is significant.

After a few lean years Gainsborough began making a name for himself in Ipswich, largely by painting bust-length and small full-length portraits, perfecting his own inimitable style. He was the first English painter to portray rural life and habits. He painted small portrait groups set against park-like backgrounds, an original style first used in the paintings of his own family as described earlier.

But he was ambitious and spurred on by his wife's evident love of high fashion and a marked preference for living at a level suitable to her status as she perceived it, he felt the need to move on to a more fashionable centre where richer clients might be found.

Quite unexpectiedly, at the end of 1759, Margaret was on the move again, this time planning a journey across country to set up home in Bath Spa in Somerset. Thomas had been persuaded to visit the town some months earlier by his quixotic friend, Philip Thickness, a new acquaintance, who was fated to play a significant role in the life of the couple. Thomas stayed in Bath for some weeks. He was so inspired by what he recognized as a splendid opportunity to attract sitters wealthy enough to pay handsomely for their portraits that he rushed back to Ipswich in October 1759 determined to sell up and move the family immediately to Bath.

Margaret must have been thrilled by her husband's decision to swap rural Ipswich for the highly fashionable spa town which lay only a few miles from her deceased father's estate, Badminton, a place she had never visited. There is no evidence that she was ever to be welcomed at the great house but her family connections were to prove invaluable to her husband as his fame as a portrait painter blossomed in the heady and wealthy social climate of Bath.

Artist John Constable was born in Suffolk and nine years after Gainsborough died he recorded a few comments about his fellow artist's early life in the county. As late as 1902 there existed in Ipswich an inn situated next to "The Ancient House," a splendid Tudor house in the Butter Market which is today occupied by the firm of Lakeland. Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower visited this particular inn in 1902 while preparing to write his book on Gainsborough which was published the following year.

He wrote that locals drinking at the bar told him that Gainsborough had spent many enjoyable evenings in that inn with his companions, who were all music lovers. Constable recorded that Gainsborough was often the butt of his Ipswich companions' humour. He had taken to wearing a wig in his early twenties and Constable wrote "His wig was to them a fund of amusement." It was often snatched from his head and thrown about the room, a clear indication that Gainsborough was at ease with this tomfoolery and was not overly concerned about his dignity.

Unfortunately Margaret does not appear to have had a similar playfulness of character which so endeared her husband to his friends, nor did she appear to appreciate it. She was always conscious of her aristocractic connections and treasured them. Although fully aware of being born on the wrong side of the blanket, she sought to retain her dignity at all costs.

And at this point in her life in Ipswich she made a life-long enemy: Philip Thickness came to call.

In the year of Gainsborough's death Thickness published a short account of his friend. In it he claimed that he, Thickness, was solely responsible for persuading the Gainsboroughs to move from Ipswich to Bath where he himself owned a house. Later he lived at 9 The Royal Crescent where he spent the social season every winter.

Thickness was the son of a clergyman. He bought the governorship of Landguard Fort, and with it he acquired his impressive title, Lord of Landguard Fort. This building was a massive old defence fort situated on the east coast near Harwich. Widely known as being arrogant, selfish, self-assertive, patronising and irritable, Thickness would do anything, it was said, even to the point of deliberately creating a scandal, to draw attention to himself. He chased acquaintance with anyone who had a title and boasted endlessly of his own rank, Lieutenant-Governor of Landguard Fort which he had, of course, purchased.

Thickness met Gainsborough soon after Thomas returned to Suffolk from London. Following his first visit to Gainsborough's painting room in the little house in Ipswich he wrote that he considered a few of the portraits on display true likenesses, being familiar with the subjects concerned, and commented on their being well-drawn "but stiffly painted and worse coloured." He was, however, bowled over by Gainsborough's landscapes and drawings of landscapes, finding them charming subjects giving "infinite delight" to the viewer. A little later he commissioned Gainsborough to paint a coastal view of Landguard Fort as a panel to be placed over his chimney-piece, for which he paid a fee of fifteen guineas. He was so pleased with the result he sent the picture to a London engraver to have it copied. The resulting print is now the only record of the panel which was destroyed by being hung on a damp wall. This was considered to be a sad loss as Gainsborough painted very few seascapes.

Gainsborough was widely acknowledged to be a kind and forgiving friend but his relationship with Thickness did eventually prove too difficult to sustain. By all contemporary accounts Philip Thickness waged a perpetual war with mankind, never losing an opportunity to diminish a reputation or cast doubt upon a character. Margaret soon became one of his prime targets. Caring nothing for her sensibilities he published critical comments about her in her lifetime.

He claimed that when the Gainsboroughs eventually arrived to set up home in Bath in 1759 he invited Margaret and the girls to remain in his house while he and Gainsborough went off in search of suitable lodgings, bearing in mind the need to find a well-lit painting studio together with family accommodation. On their return Gainsborough described to his wife the lodgings they had discovered for £50 per year (they had paid £6 per year in Ipswich) which he thought acceptable but she considered far too expensive.

"The poor woman," wrote Thickness, in a pamphlet published in 1788, "Highly alarmed, fearing it all would come out of her annuity, exclaimed 'Fifty pounds a year, Mr Gainsborough! Why, you are going to throw yourself in gaol!' But upon my telling her if she did not approve of the lodgings at fifty pounds a year he should take a house of a hundred and fifty and that I would pay the rent if he could not, Margaret's alarms were moderated."

Margaret was sixty years old when Thickness publshed these belittling comments. He had made no secret of the fact that he heartily disliked Mrs Gainsborough and criticized her at every opportunity.

However, she might have had good reason to suspect that Thomas was more than capable of living far beyond his means once he was tempted to follow society to Bath with, at first, little evidence to show that he had the ability to attract wealthy clients.