Sunday, 3 February 2019

Gainsborough's Family Album

Yesterday I went to see the Gainsborough's Family Album exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was more crowded than I expected, but then this is the last weekend (it closes today) – and it's a terrific exhibition. Terrific in quality, that is, not quantity – fifty-odd pictures, some of them not all that interesting in themselves. The core works, though – the portraits of Gainsborough's family and friends, and of himself – are utterly fascinating, and jawdroppingly good. They have been drawn together from around the world, many from private collections, and some never before seen (including one that was only very recently rediscovered). This exhibition leaves no doubt that Gainsborough was one of the most naturally gifted portrait painters who ever lived, anywhere (though he himself would have much preferred to be a full-time landscapist). His handling of paint – loose, fluid, effortlessly expressive on every scale, from tiny squiggle to grand sweeping brushstroke – is simply dazzling, and this exhibition offers the chance to take a close look at a wide range of work, from quick sketches to finished bravura pieces. Some are fragmentary, and many are 'unfinished', but none the worse for it – Gainsborough's preliminary marks can be as fascinating as his fully finished, exquisitely textured faces. Some of these works could, but for the costume, be mistaken for Sargents.
  The stars of the show are undoubtedly Gainsborough's daughters, Mary and Margaret, familiar to National Gallery visitors from the two touching double portraits there.
In Gainsborough's Family Album, we see them growing up across a wide range of pictures, from a swiftly painted, very direct study of Mary at seven or eight to pictures of the two girls interacting and playing, then portraits of them as fashionable young ladies – 'at their painting' in this extraordinary picture on loan from the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.
In a fully finished whole-length dazzler (from a private collection), Mary and Margaret pose like any other fashionable society ladies in one of their father's grand portraits.
But it is the more intimate and spontaneous portraits that are the most compelling. In them we feel the father's love and tenderness – and, increasingly, we sense trouble, something wrong under the surface, especially with the elder sister, Mary, whose life did indeed go sadly wrong (short unhappy marriage, slow descent into insanity). These amount to an extraordinarily potent sequences of pictures, and they're complemented by a series of portraits of Thomas's long-suffering but formidable wife. He seems to have presented her with a portrait of herself annually, some more finished than others. In one of the best, she strikes a classical pose – Gainsborough cocking a snook at Reynolds, no doubt. She looks like a woman you wouldn't want to cross (though it seems she never managed to curb Thomas's amatory activities).
As this exhibition makes clear, Gainsborough was a man on the make, successfully rising through society and repeatedly asserting his slender claim to gentlemanly status. Happily, along the way, he continued to paint these tender, intimate and compelling portraits of those closest to him. They are among his finest works.