David Tyler describes the final years of the Gainsborough sisters in a paper published in the Gainsborough House Society's Annual Report 1991/2, pp. 50 - 66. The following information is the result of his research.
After their mother's death Mary and Margaret lived at several addresses in London before settling in Acton, Middlesex, then a small village close to London. There they became friendly with the Briggs family, who appear to have exerted a strong infuence on them. Mary, now 56 and Margaret, 55, lived in a handsome detached house with a small garden at the rear complete with stable and coach house. The interior of the house was enhanced by a display of their father's valuable collection of paintings and drawings. The house was owned by the Briggs family and rented to the sisters for £30 per annum from 1806 until sometime before June 1821. It was demolished in about 1885.
This house as described by contemporary accounts indicates a comfortable life lived there by the Gainsborough women. However, as David Tyler points out, the premises were used by the Briggs family for their soap-making business in the late 1790s and although Briggs sold it on, it appears that the original business most likely continued in the outbuildings after the Gainsbrough daughters moved in. Soap-making was an unbelievably unpleasant, stinking and dirty process, leaving an ever-present odour pervading the area which was difficult to ignore.
In fact Mary and Margaret's life in Acton must have been a miserable experience compared to their earlier days at 17 The Circus where, as their father claimed, they spent their days drinking tea, dancing and husband-hunting. In the years they lived with their parents in London, they were present when the King and Queen occasionally called to see the artist's latest work. Now with an odorous soap factory operating in the backyard, an old friend from Ipswich visited them and described Margaret as being "odd" and Mary as "quite deranged."
In 1806, the year in which the girls became tenants, Henry Briggs the younger was a teenager, just 19 years old.. There is some evidence to indicate that in spite of the age difference Henry and Margaret, then a mature 55, were engaged to be married. Briggs' descendants believed they intended to marry but failed to do so because Margaret began to show signs of Mary's increasingly obvious mental condition.
David Tyler describes how Margaret (by this time taking charge of their joint interests because Mary was incapable of doing so) drew up a Deed of Gift, leaving the ownership of Gainsborough's valuable paintings and drawings to their landlord, Henry Briggs the younger. From time to time this young man was desperately short of money for no apparent reason. The obvious question arises: was his engagement to the woman thirty-five years his senior a love match or a wily move to relieve financial pressures? Whatever the situation, the Briggs family inherited the bulk of the Gainsborough estate, although Margaret did leave a few of the family portraits to three of her cousins.
A lock of Gainsborough's light brown hair left in the hands of Briggs' descendants is now on loan to Gainsborough's House in Sudbury.
Margaret junior died there in Acton and was buried at St Mary's Hanwell on 29 December 1820. Some historians believe she might have taken her own life after her planned marraige failed to take place. After her sister's death Mary was taken back to London to live with relatives in Dartmouth Row iin Blackheath, until her death on 2 July 1826. Her body was returned to be buried next to her sister. Together they lie in a tomb at St Mary's Church Hanwell in Middlesex.