The Circus

The Circus

PP 91 -104 3 JULY 2010

Margaret Burr Gainsborough and her husband lived in Britain when many of its European neighbours envied the freedoms enjoyed by its citizens. The British could and did publicly criticize and lampoon their betters to their hearts' content, safe from any libel charge. They were free to read whatever they liked, to travel wherever they wished. The country was openly envied for its central stability.

Strange, then, to find that the farthest the Gainsboroughs travelled was within a county or two - the east coast, London, and areas adjacent to Bath in the south-west. Gainsborough occasionally visited clients in grand houses further afield but neither he nor Margaret appear to have left the safety of the shores of Britain. This is surprising, given the interest Gainsborough displayed in studying the work of great artists exhibited in the houses of the aristocracy, some of which were open to him. He famously adored the work of Van Dyck and was strongly influenced by his work and by the techniques of several Dutch artists, but he appears to have made no effort to cross the channel to further his knowledge of European art and apparently Margaret made no demands to travel abroad. In fact the Gainsboroughs lived very much within the family circle in a relatively confined geographical space.

After leaving the Gainsborough family home in Sudbury and moving to Ipswich Margaret must have been extremely grateful for her father's generous annuity regularly deposited in her husband's bank account because they depended on it for survival initially as Thomas failed to find much work as a portraitist and found no market for his beloved landscapes.

Shortly after their arrival in the town one landowner, hearing Gainsborough was a painter, invited him to his mansion. Believing he had a potential client requiring portraits of the family or at least a painting of his house and garden, Gainsborough knocked on the imposing front door. He was taken aback but quite amused when the squire asked him to quote for painting fences on the adjoining farm.

One friendship the Gainsboroughs formed when they lived in the Brook Street house proved highly beneficial. One day Thomas took his sketch pad down to the banks of the Orwell River where he met another artist, a painter of coaches and houses by the name of Joshua Kirby, who was eleven years older than Gainsborough, a fellow countryman born nearby in Parham. The two men became close friends, so much so that Gainsborough expressed the wish that he should be buried next to Kirby in the old graveyard at Kew near London. In time, his wish ws granted. As the friendship between the two families grew Kirby, influenced by his younger friend, turned his talented brush to landscapes and became so successful he decided to follow Gainsborough's lead and he left for London to study at his friend's former academy. Ultimately Joshua Kirby was appointed drawing master to the Prince of Wales who, later, as George III, appointed Kirby to the prestigious and influential position of Clerk of the Works at Kew Palace.

The two familes became so close that when the Kirbys moved to London in 1753 they left behind their son, William (who had inherited his father's artistic talents) in Thomas's charge, to live with the family as his pupil.

At this time Margaret had two infants aged three and two to care for, in addition to the newcomer. William's sister Sara, later to become the renowned novelist, Mrs Trimmer, friend of Dr Samuel Johnson, admired Thomas, advising her brother to copy Gainsborough's "gentleness of manner." Sadly, William died young in 1774. His father followed him to the grave soon after.

William Kirby was the first of a number of children who came to live with Thomas and Margaret and their daughters. The Gainsboroughs were a large and close family who followed the common 18th C practice in which a successful brother or sister would offer to bring up the child of a less fortunate sibling. What Margaret Burr Gainsborough, an only child, thought of this practice is not known but in time she became "mother" not only to William Kirby but to several of her husband's nieces and nephews when he generously offerd to assist their parents by taking their offspring into his own household.

In addition to these family members Gainsborough extended hospitality to the children of the poor whom he persuaded to sit for him, paying their parents handsomely in return. In the mid 1780s in London he met Jack Hill, an intelligent and handsome boy, and offered him a home with his family. Hills' parents agreed and Margaret, on this occasion, took a liking to the little boy. Her daughters, too, adored him. Mary, by then married, even talked of adopting him. Jack Hill became part of the household. Gainsborough used him as a subject in two or three paintings but the lad never settled and finally ran away. He was found and brought back to the house but in spite of being treated kindly, was not happy, and on Gainsborough's death Margaret managed to have Jack accepted as a pupil at Christ's Hospital in London.

Marget appears to have been content with life in the little house in Ipswich. Her days would have been fully occupied with domestic duties and coping with her two little girls and WIlliam the apprentice painter. The Gainsboroughs would not have been able to afford more than a servant girl and perhaps extra help with the weekly laundry at this point in their lives. Housekeeping duties in the days before electricity were highly demanding for any woman, even those who could afford several servants. Many middle-class women complained of the never-ending drudgery it entailed. They were required to perform throughout endless pregnancies and in most cases, unlike Margaret, they had to contend with the many children who made their appearance at regular intervals. Ten or twelve offspring were the norm, the fifteen produced by George III and his Queen were not at all unusual. Perhaps Margaret counted herself lucky to have only two daughters and young William plus the family's two dogs to care for.

As a young and attractive wife and mother of two toddlers Margaret had to adjust to living in the relatively small country town of Ipswich in the early 1750s, after enjoying all the pleasure and delights of life in London. The Gainsborough's house was small. She was now alone, without friends or the benefit of the support of the Gainsborough women in Sudbury;.

Bearing in mind her belief that she must dress as elegantly as possible at all times because of her aristocratic connections, she had now to cope with life in a town where streets were more often than not narrow, muddy lanes, piled with unspeakable filth on either side. Aristocratic ladies wore delicate silk fabric shoes which never came in contact with a common road or pathway but stylish women like Margaret had to wear more substantial footwear, with shapely heels but uppers made of stout linen or woollen fabrics. Over these they slipped on wooden pattens or clogs to protect the shoe by raising it above the mud.

One fashionable woman complained bitterly when the friend she was visiting in York pressed her to wear her beloved best floral muslin dress and then led her up stinking muddy back streets, on foot, to visit York Minster. Her delicate gown was badly stained and ruined as a result. She was furious with her friend according to author Amanda Vickery in her excellent book "A Gentleman's Daughter" (p. 186).

Margaret now had to come to terms with the daily grind of living en famille. Clean personal linen was a constant and demanding aspect of 18th C life, for a man in particular. The male leg, like its female counterpart, was considered to be the sexiest part of the body. In Margaret's time some ultra fashionable young men known as macaronis wore artificial calves strapped to their legs to enhance their appeal. Close-fitting male breeches were at times so tight they were unbearably painful to wear on a long country walk. Occasionally, some more sensitive souls had their breeches lined with fabric designed to be removed and washed.

Thomas Gainsborough would have worn white drawers, tied in at the knee and held in place by a string around the waist. Over that he wore breeches with stockings. His shirt would have been made in white linen, perhaps with lace fronts and cuffs, making it clear to everyone that he was a gentleman and clearly did not work toiling in the fields.

He would have worn up to twenty shirts in a week, all to be washed by hand and then ironed, using hand irons heated at the fire, all forty lace cuffs requiring delicate attention. The laundry bill of a bachelor was a major expense - one of the main reasons bachelors contemplated marriage was to be relieved of the cost and trouble of endless laundry bills by acquiring a wife to cope with them.

Relaxing at home with his family Gainsborough would have dressed informally in a loose-fitting long robe, similar to a dressing gown, wearing a cap on his head.

As breeches became tighter the drawers disappeared. An actor appearing in a filmed version of Jane Austen's SENSE AND SENSIBILITY in the 1990s described how unbelievably uncomfortable his breeches were. As instructed, he wore no underwear and was told to fold his knee-length white shirt from the back, between his legs and up over his genitals like a babys' napkin or diaper as he described it. To relieve himself, he said, was a complicated process. He had to take off all his tight-fitting outer clothing to get at his breeches which had no fly or codpiece to make matters easier.

Embroidered waistcoats and handsome coats complete the male attire. In bed at night Gainsborough wore a long linen nightshirt topped off with a night cap, sometimes tied fetchingly under the chin. James Boswell was so fond of his nightcap that he kept it on when taking breakfast at home in the company of his male friends.

Sometimes clothing accessories were not as innocently decorative as they appeared. The Duc de Chartres wore overrsized buttons on his waistcoat sporting scenes so clearly pornographic that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, reported that her sister nearly died of shock when she examined them.

21st C

Surprisingly, buttons have played an important role in historical records. A few years ago David Posnett of the Leger Gallery told me he had discovered a portrait of Captain James Cook which he believed to be the original work of painter William Hodges, a contemporary of the Gainsboroughs. Known only because an engraving of the painting existed, the original portrait appeared to be lost to the world. Fosnett, however, was convinced he had found the original and he offered the portrait for sale at what was then a hefty sum of £700,000.

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich was interested in purchasing the painting but needed to examine its provenance to make sure it was an original work. The most likely time for it to have been painted was established as being after Cook's return from his second voyage. Neither Captain Cook nor Hodges, the artist on board, would have had time for the portrait to have been painted during the voyage.

This view of the date of execution was confirmed by experts on naval dress at the National Maritime Museum who pointed out the importance of the placing of the uniform buttons. Those grouped in pairs in both painting and engraving indicated that this order was correct for a captain under three years seniority. Commanders (the rank below captain) wore their buttons in groups of three. Cook was a commander when he sailed with Hodge on the second voyage and he was appointed captain on 9 August 1775, a month after his ship RESOLUTION returned to Portsmouth.

This tiny detail of the placing of the buttons therefore proved that the portrait was painted between 9 August 1775 and 12 July 1776 when Cook left on his third and fatal last voyage. Accepting the evidence of what might be regarded as insignificant haberdashery as validation of Hodge's original work, the National Maritime Museum bought the portrait, considered to be the most powerful of the three known portraits of Cook. The others were painted by nathaniel Dance and John Webber.

In future, finding similar proof of period for the early 21st C might not be so easy given the constant repeats of "retro" fahions in an industry today which seems incapable of designing a truly original style.

18th C

In Ipswich, as in later life, Gainsborough proved to be a most popular figure, much loved by his many friends. Nevertheless, he had a quick temper, but soon recovered from whatever upset him. When he was cross with Margaret at this stage in their marriage, he had the rather endearing habit of writing a little note asking for forgiveness, signing it with the name of his favourite dog, Fox, and addressing it to Margaret's pet spaniel, Tristram. She would reply to her "own dear Fox." On one occasion she wrote admitting that her husband "was always loving and good and that she was a naughty little woman 'to worry you as I too often do, so we will kiss and say no more about it. Your own affectionate Tris.'"

Gainborough was noted for his ability to write charming letters to his friends but, with the exception of this note, no correspondence between Thomas and Margaret is known to survive, and the letters he wrote to his daughters when they were at school in London were lost in their lifetime.