The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 384-388

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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.

The End
The End

  [Original cartoon by Elissa Kelly]

Pp. 380-383

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In the years before Gainsborough died he was recognized as the official portrait painter at Court and occasionally King George and Queen Charlotte called on the family at their London home to view his paintings exhibited there.

Gainsborough now moved in exalted circles as a favourite of theKing and Court.  There is, however, little to indicate that his wife was comfortable in her life at the grand address in Pall Mall.   Art historian Professor W Vaughan, writing in 2002, could not find any evidence that Margaret participated in the life of the fashionable world inhabited by her husband.

There were, perhaps, two major reasons for this:  Margaret was proud of her ancestral bloodline, but as an illegitimate female married to a working artist she would not necessarily be accepted in society.  Her daughters, as mentioned earlier, could never have been recognized as "ladies" by their Georgian contemporaries.  In addition she had another problem: Margaret Gainsborough had to act as chaperone to her two ageing daughters, one a spinster and the other married but separated and sadly descending into madness while Margaret junior was becoming noticeably more eccentric as she aged.  Life for their mother, now in her fifties, was challenging.

Gainsborough became ill and died in 1788.   After his death a growth in his neck was discovered to be cancerous, obstructing vital passages, and was declared incurable.

In his Will the artist dealt unusually harshly with his nephew, Dupont Gainsborough, reports David Tyler, leaving the impression that the relationship had been less than harmonious although Dupont had lived with the family from infancy.  Dupont was diffident and modest, but stubborn.  He continued to live with Margaret and her daughters after Gainsborough's death until the lease of the house in Pall Mall expired in 1793.  Margaret and her daughters moved to live at 63 Sloane Square, a corner house on the south side of Hans Street, and at this point Dupon left  them to live elsewhere in London.  He died in 1797 aged 42.

Margaret remained in the house in Sloane Square until she died there, aged seventy.  Her death was announced in The Times on 22 December 1798.  She was laid to rest beside her husband and  his nephew Dupont, next toG ainsborough's old friend Kirby (Thomas had expressed his wish to be buried beside him) in a tomb on the south side of the Chapel of St Anne at Kew Green, in the Burying Ground.

Pp. 375-379


Once the Gainsboroughs were  settled in their new premises in Schomberg House in London's most sought after area, they discovered a neighbour was to be none other than the notorious 18th C sex therapist, Dr James Graham who, in 1781 set up his Temple of Hymen next door.  There he installed his  newly-built 'celestial' bed, a massive electrified structure measuring 12 feet by 9 feet, destined to be occupied by the rich and famous seeking the remarkable doctor's cures (or thrills) for problems of a sexual nature.

Dr Graham hired a pretty young woman called Emma Lyon to play the Goddess of Health in his establishment and she,  the Gainsborough's neighbour,     became painter Romney's most desired model and later achieved world fame as the seductive Lady Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson.   Max  Rothschild believed that the artist and his wife and daughters must have met her, writing that she might have sat for the picure of "Musidora" in the National Gallery, which Rothschild claims to be one of the very rare attempts at the nude which Gainsborough is known to have made.

Gainsborough might have been  affected by the economic downturn immediately after the move to London, but he opened his studio to anyone willing to pay his fee, however disagreeable he might have thought the sitter, and things began to improve.

By 1778 he had sufficient means to purchase a fashionable coach to the delight of Margaret and her daughters, employed a coachman as well as his footman plus the female indoor staff and Dupont Gainsborough as an apprentice.  At the same time he enlarged his premises in Pall Mall by building extra studio space and later bought a property on Richmond Hill and possibly a cottage in Essex.

In 1777 he had been  commissioned to paint portraits of the royal family which increased his affluence and his influence (but failed to get him the longed for knighthood) and after an absence of some years following a disagreement with the Trustees he exhibited some exceptional masterpieces at the Royal Academy. 

Two years earlier he had written to his sister, Mary Gibbon, telling her he was living in relative luxury at a cost of about £1000 per year.  He  complained that his wife was "weak but good" and criticized her for doing little to make him happy, at the same time admitting that he knows she will never change in this respect.  Margaret junior was a good, sensible girl he wrote, but she could be insolent at times.  On the other hand Mary, prior to her marriage to Fischer the musician, was  playing sly tricks behind her parents' backs by communicating with Fischer against their wishes.  Thomas and Margaret were openly quarrelling about money at this time, Margaret, he complained to his sister, was trying to "govern" him.

Sadly, Gainsborough family matters became increasingly worrying, with deaths occurring in the Sudbury branch, followed by deep concern caused by the unfortunate marriage of daughter Mary to Fischer, a union which the parents bitterly opposed and which faced problems from the start, largely because of Mary's mental state.  The marriage ended after six months when Mary returned to live with her parents and her sister.


18th C/21st C

So today we glimpse the last of Margaret Gainsborough and her daughters, dressed in travelling cloaks, leaving through the front door of No. 17 The Circus, setting foot in the coach which is to whisk them away in a clatter of horses' hooves over the stone cobbles and off to their new life in fashionable Pall Mall, and out of my life forever.

 BUT....the cleaners, Molly Maids, were here on Tuesday and Gainsborough's ghost, in the form of the unpleasant fishy  odour of the    glue used  by artists to seal their canvases in the 18th C appeared upstairs in his old studio as soon as they entered the room, remaining there until they left two hours later...

Pp 368-373

18th C

The year 1774 was to prove most significant in the lives of all members of the Thomas Gainsborough family.  In March that year Thomas requested a friend in London to select for him an expensive item, a harpsichord, from the famous maker, Broadwood, and have it delivered to 17 The Circus.  This proved to be an odd and costly request because just a few weeks later he made a totally  unexpected decision to leave Bath and move the entire family, studio and household to London, including the Broadwood instrument which had to be sent back along the London Road to its new home, the west wing of Schomberg House, a mansion standing at an impresive address in Pall Mall where the artist had taken tenancy from midsummer that year and where the family remained until Gainsborough's death.

The decision to move was made incredibly swiftly and historians have argued over the reason for it.  The painter known as Wright of Derby moved to Bath shortly after the family departed and he commented in February 1775 that he had heard it said that the demand for portraits in both London and Bath was drying up and that was the reason Gainsborough decided to move to the larger city.

One of Gainsborough's later biographers, Jack Lindsay, believed the reason for the move might have been that the artist enjoyed his illicit plesures so much that he felt he would more easily escape the eagle eye of his wife in the greater sprawl of London.  But Philip Thickness, often an unrustworthy source, maintained that his friend left Bath for London because of a quarrel over a musical instrument  and this appears to be the real reason for the move:  a serious quarrel which occurred between Philip Thickness, his wife and Gainsborough.

Thickness wrote a full account of what occurred from his point of view and Thomas Gainsborough's direct descendants contacted in the 1850s also believed that their ancestor's decision to move to London was influenced by this dispute.

Philip Thickness was a difficult and quarrelsome man who throughout his life fell out with most of his friends and acquaintances.  His relationship with Gainsborough had begun many years earlier in Ipswich.  He claimed that he was responsible for the artist's decision to move to Bath and Thickness made it clear that he firmly believed that he was therefore responsible for the artist's subsequent success.

Gainsborough, however, found him difficult, often testy and irritating, but the friendship endured, in spite of the older man's intense dislike of Margaret.    At times Thickness was a burden to Gainsborough who, after this serious quarrel, appears to have been relieved to a certain extent, having rid himself of this old-man-of-the-sea who had clung to his back for so many years.

The subject of the quarrel was a serious dispute over the purchase by the artist of a rare and valuable musical instrument, a viola da gamba, the property of the beautiful Mrs Thickness whose charming portrait Gainsborough had painted some years earlier.  The terms of the sale involved the sum  of £100 and/or the promise of a portrait of Thickness to be painted by Thomas.  The painting was barely started and never finished and the payment was disputed by all three former friends.  The two men later corresponded on fairly friendly terms but the painful incident was never forgotten.

Whatever the reason for Gainsborough's decision to move to London it was made instantly and swiftly carried out in the late summer or early autumn of 1774.


18TH C

Gainsborough was a deeply moral and religious man according to art historian John Hayes.  He was a Christian who trusted in Divine Providence and Mercy.  In his later years in Bath he attended Church of England services regularly.

In 1773 Gainsborough painted the portait of the popular preacher Dr. William Dodd.  This painting was exhibited in his exhibition room on the first floor of this house to coincide with the grand opening of the newly-built Margaret Chapel, presided over by the flamboyant figure of the doctor.

The chapel was erected in Margaret Buildings situated off Brock Street, between The Circus and the Royal Crescent.  It pleased Gainsborough so much that he informed Dodd that he intended to visit it frequently.  The building was one of several chapels erected in Bath in the last quarter of the 18th C and its official opening on 3 October 1773 was a major social event.  Gainsborough made the most of it by featuring his portait of the preacher at No. 17, just round the corner, to the benefit of both men, and it was publicized accordingly.

Mrs Dodd, who was an unlikely partner to this highly popular well-educated parson, was so pleased with Gainsborough's depiction of her famous husband that she sent Margaret the gift of an expensive silk gown from London.  Gainsborough personally wrote a thank you note as his wife was indisposed at the time.  The artist was pleased with this portrait too  and he told the Dodds that ladies who came to the house to see it also approved.  He knew this, he confided, because he hovered outside the door of his exhibition room and then peeped through the keyhole to listen to their remarks.  One woman, he claimed, commented that Dr Dodd had such a lively eye!

William Dodd was a colourful figure who dressed imaginatively.  Born in Lincolnshire, a vicar's son, he proved to be an academic success at Cambridge and then moved to London where he became a highly popular preacher in various churches and because of his extravagant lifestyle and his love of fine clothes he was known affectionately as the "Macaroni Parson."  Soon heavily in debt he made an impulsive marriage to Mary Perkins, daughter of a domestic servant, a woman of low birth who brought nothing in the way of a dowry to her husband, a match that further damaged his alarming financial situation.

In spite of his success and popularity as a preacher he was living on borrowed time when fortune favoured him:  he won £1000 in a lottery.  This sum (a huge amount at the time) brought him financial relief for a short time but he continued his extravagant lifestyle and debt piled up again to the point where, in 1774, he tried to bribe his way into a lucrative position as rector at the wealthy Church of St George's, Hanover Square in London.

His action was discovered and he was dismissed from his church posts.  He was publicly ridiculed as the scandal of his bribery spread in the year the Gainsboroughs moved to live in London.  They saw their friend the preacher flee to Europe to escape the indignity he faced in the capital.   He remained abroad for two years until the gossip subsided, returning to London in 1776.  Ever the survivor, he immediately resumed his most extravagant lifestyle, again incurring huge debts.

In an effort  clear them he made a fatal lmistake:  he forged a bond for a huge sum, £4,200, in the name of his former pupil, the Earl of Chesterfield.  In good faith a banker accepted the bond and lent Dodd the money.   Later, a small ink blot in the text of the bond was noted.  The document was re-written and presented to the Earl to sign in order to replace the inferior original.  The forgery was discovered.   Dodd immediately confessed, begging for time to repay the debt.   This request was refused.  Dodd was imprisoned pending trial.  He was convicted and sentenced to death.

There was an immediate outcry at the severity of the sentence.  No less than 23,000 people signed a petition seeking a pardon for the popular "Macaroni Parson," friend of Thomas Gainsborough and a man supported by many other famous 18th C figures, including Dr Samuel Johnson who personally wrote several papers in his defence.  The Law Lords were not swayed.

William Dodd was hanged in public at Tyburn on 27 June 1777.  Was Gainsborough, I wonder, standing among the crowd to see his friend face the gallows?

Pp 359-361

18th C

At forty-six and not in the best of health herself, Margaret had to cope with this husband of hers, currently moody and depressed.  She was always concerned about his health as he was never robust.  She agonized over his generous nature, seriously concerned that he would give away his last penny without a thought for his family's future.  Philip Thickness, her enemy, nevertheless agreed with her, commenting that Gainsborough was notably over-generous to friends in need.   He would, he commented, have died a much richer fellow had he been a more "worldly-minded" man.

The Gainsboroughs' attitude to money caused constant strife between them.  He was notoriously generous to all and sundry.  Margaret veered in the opposite direction, gaining a widespread reputation for her constant nagging about money or the lack of it.  As well, Margaret had to cope with Gainsborough's moodiness:  he could be a charming, intelligent, amusing companion to his friends.  At other times he exhibited another less attractive side of his character:  irritability and a certain sarcastic severity of manner.

Margaret tolerated his indiscretions with prostitutes because she had no option, and she berated him for his long and often unexpected absences from home.  He, on his part, had to put up with her constant nagging about money while his friends openly tormented him for being a hen-pecked husband.  There can be no doubt at all that Margaret held the purse strings close throughout their marriage, allowing her husband a strictly controlled sum for pocket money in these later years, demanding close scrutiny of the professional fees t paid for his highly lucrative portraits.  Clearly, from the family's point of view, this was necessary.  As Thickness rightly pointed out the Gainsboroughs would have been bankrupt had Thomasvbeen permitted to live as generously as he wished without restriction.

At this time, 1773-4, the Gainsborough's main private family concern was the mental state of their elder daughter Mary whose behaviour was becoming increasingly odd.  They were aware that her condition was likely to deteriorate in future and financial provision for her for life was essential.  The younger daughter Margaret was  lively, demanding and headstrong but so far unaffected by the disease affecting her sister.


18th C

Gainsborough exhibited an ambiguous attitude to the aristocracy.  He claimed to hate them as fools on one hand, but claimed close friendships with various titled men on the other.  George Pitt, the first Lord Rivers, he described as a staunch friend.  In the late 1760s he was invited to stay at Pitt's country house for, he understood, a night or two.   When he arrived his host was about to leave for Spain but pressed the artist to remain and in his absence paint a couple of family portraits.  To his consternation Gainsborough found himself detained at the house for three months, leaving an indignant Margaret to cope alone at home in The Circus.

In Pitt's absence Gainsborough was required to paint portraits of Pitt's daughter and son-in-law, Lord and Lady Ligonier, and he did so, creating a pair of portraits clearly designed to hang either side of a fireplace.

The lady, however, was playing away from home, a situation reflected in the manner in which Gainsborough, quite unaware of her adultery, composed the portaits, picking up on the tension between the two and depicting the married couple as separate entities, clearly not responding to each other.

Later it transpired that Penelope Ligonier had had an affair with her groom, spurned him in favour of a certain Count Alfieri, upon which the humble man from the stable block, determined on revenge, revealed all to her husband.

Rumours of the scandal soon spread, eagerly devoured by society.  Many viewers of Gainsborough's newly finished portraits presumed he must have known of Penelope's adulterous affairs but his colleagues believed he did not:  they knew he was fully capable of accurately assessing her attitude towards her husband over the hours she sat for him.  Gainsborough was naturally intuitive.

Whatever the reason, his portraits clearly reveal the emotional distance between this husband and wife, he leaning on his horse to the left of his portrait, she leaning in the opposite direction on a pedestal to the right of her image, averting her gaze, and looking down, not at her husband.  No doubt Gainsborough returned to Bath after his unexpectedly prolonged stay in Pitt's country mansion with some juicy gossip to entertain Margaret and perhaps to compensate for his lengthy absence.

Pp 349-352

Henry Angelo claimed that at Gainsborough's house in Pall Mall a little later the painter told him he detested painting portraits and disliked the gentry who paid for them.   He added that trying to produce something representing a human resemblance from these blockheads was so demanding a process it was enough to cause a saint to cut his own throat with his own palette knife.

The 4th Duke of Bedford was one of Gainsborough's neighbours, living in the same south-facing segment of The Circus but the painter claimed he had no time for gentlemen of the upper classes who expected him to kow-tow to them.

Philip Thickness said Gainsborough knew how to think and act as a  gentleman in spite of his background, and had nothing but contempt for those who dared to treat him in any other way.  Soon after moving into No. 17 he employed "my man" to answer the bell at the front door.  If gentlemen callers wanted to inspect paintings in the exhibition room on the first floor an entrance fee of a shilling was pocketed and  the visitor was  politely shown upstairs.   But should they ask to see Gainsborough, his servant had to clarify the situation:  if the caller was a potential sitter and enquired about a portrait, he was intrdouced to the painter.  If he simply wanted to meet the artist, to see him "bow and scrape," he was crisply informed that Mr Gainsborough was not at home.   However, Gainsborough made it clear in a letter to a friend that should a handsome lady call at the house an entirely different welcome awaited her.  The exact nature of this welcome is not known but might be guessed at as the recipient of the letter blacked out the bawdy remarks that followed.

At the age of 47 Gainsborough was chafing at the bit:  he was restless, hated being tied to the routine business of painting portraits in order  to keep the household running.  He was longing, he wrote to a friend, to be done with domestic restraints, imagining a life of freedom in a little village in the countryside where he could live, play his beloved musical instruments and amuse himself by painting landscapes.   He  abhorred his current life of demanding social commitments forced upon him by his wife and daughters, intent on attendingttea parties, dancing and "husband huntings."  He was doubtful of the successful outcome of the latter and deeply resented the domestic restrictions also forced upon him.

In spite of all her endeavours to find suitable husbands for her daughters, Margaret's social activities were rarely reported in the press although Gainsborough's unusually accurate ability to capture a likeness in his sitters was recorded there in the period he was working from home here in The Circus.


18th C

Margaret Gaisnborough, now 46, faced the future as what then would be considered an elderly woman.   Her household consisted of a husband, now a famous artist at the peak of his powers, two spinster daughters approaching their mid twenties, one with mental health problems and both totally dependent on their parents for financial support.  In addition, one of Gainsborough's nieces lived with them and so did his nephew Dupont.  When the lad turned eighteen in 1772 he was formally apprenticed to Gainsborough who taught him to paint.  Under the terms of his contract Dupont's mother, Gainsborough's sister Sarah, was required to pay for his keep.  Was this clause inserted at Margaret's insistence?  Surely Gainsborough, known for his generosity, would not have required it.

A man servant was employed in the house, and there were probably at least two maids plus a washerwoman to help with domestic work.  Gainsborough must have employed additional help in the stable at the rear of the house in Circus Mews as he owned several horses at this time.

Gainsborough was not an easy man to live with in the 1770s.   In 1769 his rival Reynolds received a knighthood and in letters to influential friends from then on Gainsborough frequently reveals his longing for the same honour, which was never to be and this omission on the part of the establishment rankled.  He  first exhibited full length portraits of the King and Queen in London in 1781 and thereafter was virtually accepted as Court Painter but never, to his disgust, knighted.

One of his younger friends who frequently accompanied him on horseback as he rode round Bath described him as being irritable, severe and sarcastic at times, although warmly attached to people he liked.  Their route often took them through woods at Claverton and Warley which were favourite haunts of the artist.  He frequently spent the day there alone, sketching, sustained by a packet of bread and cheese carried in his pocket.

He was happiest in this natural environment of woodland, fields and streams.