Portrait of the artist

PUBLISHED: 14:30 04 February 2014 | UPDATED: 14:30 04 February 2014

Feature on Gainsborough's House and new director Mark Billsl. The House has just undergone a makeover.

Feature on Gainsborough's House and new director Mark Billsl. The House has just undergone a makeover.


Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury has had an extensive makeover. Andrew Clarke spoke to museum director Mark Bills about helping people to get closer to one of Britain’s greatest artists

Thomas Gainsborough is one of Britain’s great artistic icons and one of Suffolk’s greatest sons.

He changed the face of art in the 18th century. Taking his inspiration from the great Dutch portrait and landscape painters of the previous generation he helped establish a British school of art – a school which Constable tapped into a couple of decades later.

Gainsborough’s House, Thomas Gainsborough’s family home in Sudbury, has long been home to one of the greatest collections of his work but following a major refurbishment, the number of works on display has doubled.

Mark Bills, museum director, has supervised an attic to ground floor re-hang of the collection, which not only tells Gainsborough’s story but explores the breadth and scope of his work.

The fact that Gainsborough’s work is displayed in the house where he lived for many years lends the exhibition relevance and added atmosphere. Everything is given a sense of context.

You get to know Gainsborough the man as well as Gainsborough the artist. You also get to learn something about the world in which he lived.

Before Gainsborough, Britain didn’t really have a homegrown art tradition. Artists were brought over from the capitals of mainland Europe and were commissioned to capture the likenesses of Britain’s great and the good.

Gainsborough wanted to change that. In the 1740s he moved to London to study art at the academy in St Martin’s Lane before returning to Ipswich to build up his profile as a portrait painter.

Mark reveals that while Gainsborough was passionate about art, he was passionate about other pursuits as well.

“During his time in London he got a young lady, by the name of Margaret Burr, pregnant. They married and as she was the illegitimate daughter of The Duke of Beaufort he settled a £200 a year annuity on them; which was very helpful to the struggling young artist.”

Mark said that part of the refurbishment of Gainsborough’s House was to help visitors get to know the man behind some of the greatest of Britain’s greatest art works. It is important to know that although he is revered as a portrait painter, he loved landscapes and was inspired by the Dutch landscape artists.

“It was Gainsborough’s landscapes which first attracted Constable’s attention.”

Part of the process of re-hanging the paintings was to create room for personal items belonging to Gainsborough to be displayed.

“What we wanted to do was to freshen everything up and ultimately show more works. Originally we had 50 works on displayt, now we have double that. They cover a wide range of subject matter and come from all stages of his career but there is obviously the works are weighted towards his time in Suffolk.

“It’s the largest collection of Gainsboroughs under one roof and what’s even better they are displayed in the house where he once lived.”

He said that the ground floor of the house focused on Gainsborough’s life while the paintings and the displays upstairs looked at his art including copies Gainsborough made of his great heroes like Van Dyck.

“The downstairs felt more domestic than the upstairs, so that is where we look at Gainsborough’s life and try and bring out some of its amazing stories.

Gainsborough’s life was a true rags to riches story. After training and getting married in London, he returned to Sudbury for 18 months between 1748-49 before moving to Ipswich. In 1759 he moved to Bath, with his wife and two daughters, as his reputation grew.

Ten years later he submitted works to the Royal Academy’s early exhibitions. He selected portraits of well-known or notorious clients in order to attract attention. The exhibitions helped him acquire a national reputation, and he was invited to become a founding member.

“He was a fascinating man with a wicked sense of humour. You can glimpse this from his letters. We have examples of his writing on display. One of my favourites is to his friend Mr Jackson.

“Gainsborough has sent him a harp as a present and the covering note says: “Here’s something for you to twang upon when you are not twanging Mrs Jackson. He had quite a bawdy sense of humour.”

Gainsborough’s House in Gainsborough Street, Sudbury, is open from 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday.

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