The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 175 - 178

18th C

Surprisingly, given his love of socialising, Gainsborough appears to have been a shy man, blushing easily. His conversation was sprightly but licentious and he had no appetite for pointless small-talk which, if it arose, he dismissed quickly by the use of a witty remark. His friend William Jackson said the painter rarely read a book but was unequalled in his ability to write an original, amusing and lively letter to a friend.

Another of Gainsborough's friends, young Henry Angelo, son of the Royal Fencing Master, was England's foremost practitioner of the sport in the 18th C. He went so far as to say that Gainsborough was afraid of his wife Margaret and was never entirely at ease when at home, and equally worried when he was not, in case she discovered how much money he had spent on his days away. Thomas was generous to a fault according to his friends but Margaret was mean beyond belief in Angelo's view. Later, Gainsborough's son-in-law, Johann Christian Fischer, often teased him about allowing Margaret to brow-beat him so obviously, claiming that she was "receiver-general, paymaster-general and auditor" all rolled into one.

Indeed, her frugality was so well-known that even the Queen herself commented upon it. According to Henry Angelo, Fischer (at that time a musician at Court) told the Queen that his mother-in-law was "twin sister of the Old Lady in Threadneedle Street" and she would not be content until her husband poured into her lap a sum equal to the national debt.

Nevertheless, Margaret apparently bore Fischer no grudge because she left him £20 in her will to cover his mourning costs and to express her regard for him.

Let us gallop a few years ahead for a moment. Mary (or Molly as her father called her) the elder daughter, married Johann Christian Fischer on 21 February 1780 at St Anne's Church in Soho in London. Her father and mother and Gainsborough's nephew Dupont acted as witnesses. Earlier, both daughters had been infatuated by Fischer, who was seventeen years older than Mary. He was an oboe player devoted to his musical studies but rumoured to have few social graces and generally believed, at least by male commentators, to be imprudent and not over intelligent. Gainsborough had serious doubts about Fischer as a suitor and tried to prevent the marriage, but failed. When living in The Circus in 1768 Gainsborough started to paint a portrait of William Shakespeare but dissatisfied, abandoned the painting. Six years later on a whim, and not commissioned to do so, he picked up that particular unfinished canvas and painted over the Bard, creating an exquisite portrait of Fischer the musician. This full-length portrait, much admired at the time it was first exhibited in the artist's showroom (at the house where I am writing this account) and later when it was shown at the Royal Academy in London, is currently considered to be one of Gainsborough's finest full-length studies of a male. It is now in the collection of Her Majesty The Queen where, if you are lucky enough to stand in front of it, you might think about the painting of Shakespeare that lies beneath.

P 173-4

18th C

When James Boswell, newly married, was accosted by pretty women in The Strand in London he indulged hmself to the point of paying to "interview" several in order to satisfy his curiosity, as he put it, while managing technically to remain faithful to his young wife.

Some years after her father's death, his daughter Margaret admitted that her father often "exceeded the bounds of temperance" a habit which badly affected his health, sometimes to the point where he was unable to work for a week afterwards. He readily admitted to a friend that he led a dissolute life.

According to Thickness the painter had a total disregard for money and spent freely, to the utter despair of Margaret who, as we know, kept a close eye on all expenditure, not only regarding the household but whenever possible on her husband's business affairs as well. At times Gainsborough was embarrassed to admit that he could not send his sister, Mary Gibbon, money he owed her because he had received nothing in private, meaning funds unknown to Margaret.

On one occasion Margaret and her daughters travelled by their own coach from London to visit friends in Ipswich, leaving Gainsborough in London. In a letter to Mary Gibbon he made the point that his wife unexpectedly changed her mind about the length of the visit and wrote requiring him to meet them and escort them back to London some days earlier than planned. Gainsborough confessed to his sister that he guessed the real reason for this earlier return was because his wife was unable to trust him when left to live alone in the great city with all its temptations.

P. 172

21st C

I hate cakes of soap on the hand-basin which begin to show their age by means of nasty black lines leading to horrible cracks. So I started buying quite expensive and well-known brands of liquid hand-wash in bottles furnished with neat little pumps to work them. Now I find to my horror that those pretty bottles (usually plastic) dribble their contents onto the hand-basin and start eating through the porcelain, leaving an obvious mark which feels rough to the touch. If the liquid can do that to a hand-basin, what is it doing to my skin? So I am, like Margaret Gainsborough in the 18th C, now back to using old-fashioned good quality soap in the bathroom. She, of course, didn't have the luxury of the latter.

Pp 169-171

18th C

Margaret Gainsborough managed her husband's accounts assiduously, tried but failed to manage the man himself but, to a degree, controlled his work.

His letters offer plenty of evidence of "old Margaret" urging him back to work to finish this portrait or that. Often he left a painting unfinished for months, even years, to her chagrin. It was she who insisted that Gainsborough remembered to add the packing costs to his bill when sending off a portrait to the sitter, even though he admitted finding the cost (in one case seven shillings) too trivial and embarrassing to mention.

Gainsborough wa always a convivial soul who enjoyed having his friends to stay in the house. Later, when living at 17 The Circus and letting out rooms to lodgers, there was space to accommodate only one couple and their servants at any one time. Margaret knew that any friends staying in the house occupied rooms which would otherwise be let out at top rate for accommoidation at the height of the six month season. She did all she could to discourage her husband from inviting his friends to stay. Travel at the time was difficult, dangerous and tiring and friends tended to remain for a period of weeks if not months after a long journey. This represented a serious loss of income.

In 1774 Gainsborough left 17 The circus to spend an indulgently pleasurable time in London, away from Margaret's watchful eye. With his friend the history and decorative painter, Giovanni Battista Cipriani and his roisterous colleagues, Gainsborough wrote to a friend that he was "enjoying what I like up to the hilt." His comments in earlier correspondence made it clear that those words referred to sexual intercourse with unnamed women assumed to be prostitutes. He indicated that, if it were not for his family, he would love to join these friends more often in pursuit of similar pleasures.

Gainsborough was profligate with his money and it appears that Margaret had every reason to be concerned about the way in which her successful husband conducted not only his appetite for wine and women, but also his well-known generosity in providing hospitality of all kinds for his friends at all levels of society. She might also have worried about contracting sexually transmitted diseases from her husband following his affairs with the women of the night.

Philip Thickness might have encouraged Gainsborough's dalliance by expressing his own belief that opium was a useful treatment to ensure a long life. He advised gentlemen to breath in the breath of virgins to improve their own health, helpfully adding that Bath was the very best place in the country where that particular medium might be found and conveyed by the most beautiful of females.

Pp. 167-8

18th C

The nearest arrangement to divorce available to couples mid 18th C was agreement on Private Articles of Separation, by which the husband was no longer liable for his wife's debts, but neither party was free to remarry, although they could co-habit with other partners.

The safely married Georgian male was in an envious position: he had absolute freedom to behave in any manner he chose, provided it was lawful. Heavy drinking and fornication were accepted as normal behaviour for men like Gainsborough and his circle and their wives could do nothing but accept the situation.

They had, of course, their own ways of dealing with an errant husband. In Margaret's case she, by all contemporary accounts, kept a close eye on her husband's expenditure and earned herself a reputation for being mean and unwelcoming to his friends. Very few of them liked her and even fewer stayed in touch with her after her husband's death. Gainsborough often referred to his wife as "old Margaret" in a rather perjorative manner when writing to his old friend Unwin. She was in her thirties at the time and there is more than a hint in his comments about her to indicate that some of his male friends believed him to be a hen-pecked husband.

In the 187 years from 1670 to 1857 there were only 325 divorces registered in England, all but four of them obtained by men.

Forced marraiges were occasionally wrecked by an unwilling bride. Lady Mary Coke scandalized society by refusing to consummate her marriage and as a result she was kept a virtual prisoner at Holkham Hall in Norfolk for a year before being humiliated by a public annulment.