The Circus

The Circus

PP 105 - 113 15 August 2010

18th C
Gainsborough's burgeoning career in Ipswich led him to make many good friends drawn from all levels of society. Together with a reputation for being convivial, generous and kind, he was much loved by pretty well all who knew him. Margaret's reputation did not serve her as well. In many ways they appeared to be an incompatible couple. He was generous, she was frugal to the point of meanness and was notably unwelcoming as far as his friends were concerned. In the twelve years since their wedding day she had gained a lot of weight and although Gainsborough declared he loved her dearly "My wife is weak but good," he wrote, admitting at the same time that she was "never much formed to humour my Happiness," but believed there was nothing he could do to alter her attitude.

In the portrait he painted of Margaret at this time she wears no wedding ring. Was she making a statement? Or had she simply outgrown her wedding band? Gainsborough includes in this affectionate portrait of his wife a spray of honeysuckle, a flower long associated with romance, love and eroticism. In the fens of East Anglia honeysuckle, otherwise known as woodbine, if displayed indoors, was believed to induce erotic dreams in young girls. Gainsborough's decision to include honeysuckle in this painting might have reflected the couple's first embraces spent among the scented hedgerows of the countryside. Whatever his reason, inclusion of this flower, "the Bonds of Love," as it is sometimes called, is significant.

After a few lean years Gainsborough began making a name for himself in Ipswich, largely by painting bust-length and small full-length portraits, perfecting his own inimitable style. He was the first English painter to portray rural life and habits. He painted small portrait groups set against park-like backgrounds, an original style first used in the paintings of his own family as described earlier.

But he was ambitious and spurred on by his wife's evident love of high fashion and a marked preference for living at a level suitable to her status as she perceived it, he felt the need to move on to a more fashionable centre where richer clients might be found.

Quite unexpectiedly, at the end of 1759, Margaret was on the move again, this time planning a journey across country to set up home in Bath Spa in Somerset. Thomas had been persuaded to visit the town some months earlier by his quixotic friend, Philip Thickness, a new acquaintance, who was fated to play a significant role in the life of the couple. Thomas stayed in Bath for some weeks. He was so inspired by what he recognized as a splendid opportunity to attract sitters wealthy enough to pay handsomely for their portraits that he rushed back to Ipswich in October 1759 determined to sell up and move the family immediately to Bath.

Margaret must have been thrilled by her husband's decision to swap rural Ipswich for the highly fashionable spa town which lay only a few miles from her deceased father's estate, Badminton, a place she had never visited. There is no evidence that she was ever to be welcomed at the great house but her family connections were to prove invaluable to her husband as his fame as a portrait painter blossomed in the heady and wealthy social climate of Bath.

Artist John Constable was born in Suffolk and nine years after Gainsborough died he recorded a few comments about his fellow artist's early life in the county. As late as 1902 there existed in Ipswich an inn situated next to "The Ancient House," a splendid Tudor house in the Butter Market which is today occupied by the firm of Lakeland. Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower visited this particular inn in 1902 while preparing to write his book on Gainsborough which was published the following year.

He wrote that locals drinking at the bar told him that Gainsborough had spent many enjoyable evenings in that inn with his companions, who were all music lovers. Constable recorded that Gainsborough was often the butt of his Ipswich companions' humour. He had taken to wearing a wig in his early twenties and Constable wrote "His wig was to them a fund of amusement." It was often snatched from his head and thrown about the room, a clear indication that Gainsborough was at ease with this tomfoolery and was not overly concerned about his dignity.

Unfortunately Margaret does not appear to have had a similar playfulness of character which so endeared her husband to his friends, nor did she appear to appreciate it. She was always conscious of her aristocractic connections and treasured them. Although fully aware of being born on the wrong side of the blanket, she sought to retain her dignity at all costs.

And at this point in her life in Ipswich she made a life-long enemy: Philip Thickness came to call.

In the year of Gainsborough's death Thickness published a short account of his friend. In it he claimed that he, Thickness, was solely responsible for persuading the Gainsboroughs to move from Ipswich to Bath where he himself owned a house. Later he lived at 9 The Royal Crescent where he spent the social season every winter.

Thickness was the son of a clergyman. He bought the governorship of Landguard Fort, and with it he acquired his impressive title, Lord of Landguard Fort. This building was a massive old defence fort situated on the east coast near Harwich. Widely known as being arrogant, selfish, self-assertive, patronising and irritable, Thickness would do anything, it was said, even to the point of deliberately creating a scandal, to draw attention to himself. He chased acquaintance with anyone who had a title and boasted endlessly of his own rank, Lieutenant-Governor of Landguard Fort which he had, of course, purchased.

Thickness met Gainsborough soon after Thomas returned to Suffolk from London. Following his first visit to Gainsborough's painting room in the little house in Ipswich he wrote that he considered a few of the portraits on display true likenesses, being familiar with the subjects concerned, and commented on their being well-drawn "but stiffly painted and worse coloured." He was, however, bowled over by Gainsborough's landscapes and drawings of landscapes, finding them charming subjects giving "infinite delight" to the viewer. A little later he commissioned Gainsborough to paint a coastal view of Landguard Fort as a panel to be placed over his chimney-piece, for which he paid a fee of fifteen guineas. He was so pleased with the result he sent the picture to a London engraver to have it copied. The resulting print is now the only record of the panel which was destroyed by being hung on a damp wall. This was considered to be a sad loss as Gainsborough painted very few seascapes.

Gainsborough was widely acknowledged to be a kind and forgiving friend but his relationship with Thickness did eventually prove too difficult to sustain. By all contemporary accounts Philip Thickness waged a perpetual war with mankind, never losing an opportunity to diminish a reputation or cast doubt upon a character. Margaret soon became one of his prime targets. Caring nothing for her sensibilities he published critical comments about her in her lifetime.

He claimed that when the Gainsboroughs eventually arrived to set up home in Bath in 1759 he invited Margaret and the girls to remain in his house while he and Gainsborough went off in search of suitable lodgings, bearing in mind the need to find a well-lit painting studio together with family accommodation. On their return Gainsborough described to his wife the lodgings they had discovered for £50 per year (they had paid £6 per year in Ipswich) which he thought acceptable but she considered far too expensive.

"The poor woman," wrote Thickness, in a pamphlet published in 1788, "Highly alarmed, fearing it all would come out of her annuity, exclaimed 'Fifty pounds a year, Mr Gainsborough! Why, you are going to throw yourself in gaol!' But upon my telling her if she did not approve of the lodgings at fifty pounds a year he should take a house of a hundred and fifty and that I would pay the rent if he could not, Margaret's alarms were moderated."

Margaret was sixty years old when Thickness publshed these belittling comments. He had made no secret of the fact that he heartily disliked Mrs Gainsborough and criticized her at every opportunity.

However, she might have had good reason to suspect that Thomas was more than capable of living far beyond his means once he was tempted to follow society to Bath with, at first, little evidence to show that he had the ability to attract wealthy clients.