Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727 - 1788)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

A founding member of the Royal Academy and a rival of its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough was one of the leading portraitists of late 18th-century England. Unlike Reynolds, he was a favourite painter of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Gainsborough’s landscapes were also hugely influential and helped establish the importance of landscape as a category of painting in Britain.

Gainsborough was raised in Suffolk before moving to London to develop his artistic talents at the early age of 13. In the city his life was a cosmopolitan, cultured affair, far away from his more humble family of cloth merchants. He studied under the French engraver and illustrator Hubert-François Gravelot, as well as the English painter Francis Hayman, who later became the Royal Academy’s first librarian.

After enjoying a successful decade in the capital, Gainsborough returned in his early twenties to Suffolk as a newly married man. There he honed his portrait skills painting local gentry and merchants before moving to Bath, lured by the promise of a more fashionable clientele. It was in this city that he developed his rivalry with Joshua Reynolds, who would become another founding member of the Royal Academy and its first President. Both had ambitions to be the country’s greatest portraitist. Reynolds may have been the King’s official court painter, but Gainsborough was the monarch’s personal favourite.

Gainsborough’s portraits were highly lucrative for him and well-liked, and it is believed that Queen Charlotte broke down in public when he unveiled his paintings of her. However his letters show he often grew impatient with his clients’ demands. In private, he longed to escape high society and spend his days peacefully painting bucolic landscapes – to “enjoy the fag End of life in quietness & ease”, as he wrote in his thirties.

Later in life Gainsborough found more time to paint landscapes and developed his style from familiar pastoral scenes to grand, overwhelming vistas. A tour of the West Country and the Lake District encouraged Gainsborough’s interest in mountainous scenery. His later landscapes became grander and more sublime in which the more awe-inspiring aspects nature were depicted. Fellow artist John Constable paid tribute to Gainsborough’s landscapes in 1836: “On looking at them, we have tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them.”

Gainsborough often quarreled with the Royal Academy, particularly over the hanging of his pictures in the Annual Exhibition. In 1784 he withdrew all his paintings from the exhibition and showed them in his own studio at his house in London. After decades of friction, it was only on Gainsborough’s deathbed aged 61 that he put his rivalry with Reynolds to rest. He sent the artist a letter claiming he had “always admired and sincerely loved” him, with an invite to see the last of his great paintings kept at his home. It’s not known what words were exchanged at the bedside, but Reynolds wrote after his death that the Royal Academy had lost “one of its greatest ornaments”.

Profile

Royal Academician

Foundation Member

Born: 1727 in Sudbury, Suffolk, England, United Kingdom

Died: 2 August 1788

Nationality: British

Elected RA: 10 December 1768

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by Thomas Gainsborough in the RA Collection

Works after Thomas Gainsborough in the RA Collection

Works associated with Thomas Gainsborough in the RA Collection

Associated books

Associated archives