The Circus

The Circus

PP. 80 - 90 Posted 18/6/2010

18th C Ipswich

When Mary was two and Margaret one, Margaret Burr Gainsborough found herself on the move again in 1752, packing up, leaving the comfort of the old family home in Sudbury and the loving presence of the childrens' grandmother, aunts and uncles, to take up residence further north in the town of Ipswich, a move she and Thomas hoped would prove to be more fruitful in providing subjects for his brush. As much as he loved painting landscapes in Suffolk, those pictures were difficult to sell and he needed to find more affluent clients who could afford to have their portraits painted.

20th C

Last night, here in Bath, the full moon shone brightly in a clear sky, lighting up the interior of the rooms with south-facing windows overlooking The Circus. I had been reading the young Rev. James Woodforde's diaires describing his days and nights travelling in the west country around Bath. He and his contemporaries all emphasize the importance of moonlight to the 18th C traveller.

18th C

It might not be too fanciful to imagine Thomas and Margaret Gainsborough consulting the almanac to ascertain the position of the moon on the day they planned to travel from Sudbury to Ipswich. Towns were lit at night in the 1750s but villages and country roads were not, and the night of a full moon was chosen whenever possible to travel through the counryside. Although a destination might not, as in this case, be far distant, carriage break-downs were frequent, causing long delays when help with repairs had to be summoned from a village sometimes miles distant, while all 18thC travellers, on horseback or using any form of transport , had to cope with the ever present threat of an attack by highwaymen.

One village shop-keeper was so aware of the danger of walking about at night that, to visit his gravely ill mother living only a mile or two across the fields, he not only waited for the night of the full moon to do so, but also hired a sturdy villager to walk with him there and back, for protection. The same fellow was again employed a night or two later but this time in an additional capacity. The shop-keeper and his wife had stayed out late playing cards and drinking with friends until 2 o'clock in themorning. It was clearly time to make tracks for home but the shop-keeper's wife was legless, and the sturdy villager was called from his bed again, not only to accompany the couple but also to hoist the drunken woman on to his back and carrry her all the way home.

The young Gainsboroughs appear to have owned neither horse nor carriage at this point in their lives and presumably hired a cart or waggon to convey whatever household goods they had acquired to their new home in Ipswich, while they travelled by the regular public coach service operating between the east coast towns.

Had they chosen to travel with their daughters sitting on their laps inside the coach the children's fare would have been reduced to half price. The same reduction was offered to passengers prepared to sit outside and brave the elements.

In Ipswich Gainsbor0ough rented a small house in Brook Street, paying a yearly rent of six pounds. For centuries the English have shown a marked preference for living privately, unlike their European and Asian contemporaries. Ninety percent of houses in Georgian times are believed to have been rented, indicating that people at all levels of society preferred living in a house of their own, eschewing the European practice of communal living in flats or apartments. And it was not necessary at this time to own property to achieve status. By choosing to rent a house, however small, in Ipswich Gainsborough became head of the household. As such he was required to pay rent and rates and taxes and that, in turn gave him as a male, the right to vote and enabled him to take office in local government if the occasion arose. A woman, of couse, had no such rights, even if she were a widow responsible for running her own household.

Socialite and artist Mary Delany suffered what would now be considered a serious injustice when she was more or less forced into a marriage she did not want in order to please her family. She was seventeen and her bridegroom, Alexander Pendarves, was nearly sixty. His appearance and behaviour were repulsive to her but she knew she had no option but to agree to her family's wishes. After some year Pendarves died unexpectedly and, sadly from his young wife's point of view, within hours of his promising her he would immediately alter his will in her favour. He died before he could call for pen and paper. As a result his valuable estate passed to his niece, leaving his young wife on the breadline.

Learning to cope on a very small inheritance Mary felt strongly that fathers in the 28th C provided too little for daughters in their Wills as their sons had many means of increasing inheritances through professional employment totally denied to their sisters. This unfairness angered her and she advised distressed gentlewomen left alone with no private income to seek employment in the houses of the rich. Even so, she knew the remuneration offered would never be sufficient to support them in old age, a common fear of many of her contemporaries.

She herself was lucky to have the support of a wealthy family and influential friends although in later years she, in turn, caused her own family some heartache when she insisted on marrying Dr Patrick Delany, a man her critical batchelor brother considered totally unsuitable. Why? Because he was the son of a servant employed by an Irish Judge. Her brother remained unimpressed by the Irishman's academic success, strong religious beliefs, and the happiness of his sister's second marriage.

In middle-age Mary Delany was highly critical of the lifestyle of men in general. They were, she noted, completely free to "sin without limitation or blame." A woman, on the other hand, who committed the faintest indiscretion was severely criticized and often ostracized by society.

21st C

"We have something in common," said the head waiter in the restaurant at Fawsley Hall Hotel this morning. "I love Marmite and I see you do too!"

The hotel staff in this ancient building in Northamptonshire are drawn from all over the world, he told me, and when he tries to persuade them that marmite is the food of gods they are less than entranced by the sticky black stuff. So far he has failed to convert any one of them. I am staying here for Easter with two friends, Charles and Henry.

Fawsley Hall is a delightful mix of ancient and modern. The site itself has been lived on or in since the 8th C. The current building boasts wings dating back to early 16th C still in use, while the spa is a model of modernity. I am disappointed with the pool. The water is only waist-high and I prefer it to be at least lapping my chin when I am on my feet.

As I write I am sitting in the impressive Great Hall, a light and airy space with massive windows on either side, well-furnished with plump sofas and comfortable armchairs, and a fireplace large enough to roast the proverbial ox on its blazing log fires. Last night we treated ourselves to the special menu devised by the chef, Nigel Godwin. Given the splendour of the building we were disappointed to be shown to a table in a small, cold, odd-shaped area described rather loudly by a disgruntled fellow guest as being the equivalent of the inside of a caravan. She insisted on withdrawing to a table in the bar and I didn't blame her. The room was freezing in spite of two or three temporary heaters placed here and there. But the food was superb and the staff could not have been more pleasant. We attended Easter Sunday service in the ancient church standing entirely isolated in a field near the hotel. There was no sign of the original village which once surrounded it: the occupants in the Middle Ages were victims of the Black Death and their houses had long since disappeared.

18TH C

In the year of their marriage Margaret had agreed to sit for a joint portrait of herself and her husband. She could not have known how famous this painting, introducing a particular form of portaiture, was to become hundreds of years later, she in her voluminous dress and face-framing bonnet, Thomas cross-legged beside her, both sitting on a bench in a leafy garden setting. This painting now hangs in the Louvre in Paris.

Her husband followed the same format to paint one of his most famous compositions, a joint portait of Robert Andrews and his wife Frances who, clad in her pretty blue dress, is depicted in exactly the same position as Margaret a year earlier - in fact so similar are the poses and faces of the two wives they can hardly be distinguished one from the other. This portrait of the Andrews is one of the most famous and frequently recognized of all Gainsborough's paintings, now in the collection of the National Gallery in London. In the book"10,000 YEARS OF ART" published by Phaedon in 2009 this image by Gainsborough was chosen as the sole example to represent painting in mid 18th C.

Margaret must have been quite happy with the results of her husband's depiction of her because, shortly before her second daughter's birth, he painted a similar portrait of himself and his wife, this time with the infant Mary standing between them as they sit upon a bench in front of a leafy background.

Then, four or five years later, when Mary and Margaret were abourt six and five years old respecitvely and living in Ipswich, he painted the delightful study of his little girls entitled "THE ARTIST'S DAUGHTERS CHASING BUTTERFLIES," a much loved painting now hanging in the National Gallery in London.
This painting surely touched Margaret's heart. It would be hard to find a more loving portrayal of his children by any father. But Thomas Gainsborough did not always please his wife, nor she him.