Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Gainsborough Girls

Another day, another painting - this time Thomas Gainsborough's unfinished The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly.
 Yesterday I popped into the National Gallery and was wandering around more or less at random, as I often do. Invariably, when I do this, something will catch my eye and draw me to it for a longer deeper look. Perhaps because I'd just been writing about Autumn Leaves - another painting of children with a theme of transience and a mood of suspended sadness - it was this Gainsborough that reached out and grabbed me. More precisely, it was this beautiful picture and a slightly later, more unfinished painting of the two little girls (The Painter's Daughters Holding a Cat) that hangs at right angles to it in a corner of Room 35.
 The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly shows, on the right, Mary and on the left, Margaret, at about the ages of six and four respectively. Mary is every inch the protective elder sister, yet seems strangely detached from the little drama that is about to play out, as Margaret impulsively reaches to grab a butterfly that has perched on a thistle - a double jeopardy. Clearly the butterfly can be read as a symbol of the transience of life and beauty, the brevity of childhood, etc (and equally clearly, Gainsborough was no lepidopterist - this butterfly seems to have its upperwings where its underwings should be). The thistle needs no gloss.
 The two figures are quite beautifully drawn - note in particular the placing of the feet, perfectly expressing the tension between them, the subtle modulation of skin tones, and the masterly free rendering of their dresses. It is a very immediate picture of a frozen movement, a moment in time, and it radiates the artist's intense love and tender anxiety for his young daughters.
 The painting becomes yet more touching with hindsight, as life did not go well for these girls. Mary made a disastrous, short-lived marriage (against her father's wishes) to the virtuoso oboist and composer Johann Christian Fischer, and her always eccentric and flighty character gradually descended into outright madness; it is thought she probably ended her days in an asylum. Margaret's eccentricity stayed within the bounds of sanity, but she never married, and led a rather lonely, retired life. They are both buried in Hanwell churchyard. My first school was in Hanwell, but that's another story...

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