The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 116-120


The Gainsboroughs arrived in Bath at the end of 1759. The Bath Journal was boastfully patriotic: the British had conquered Quebec! Bath City Council sent an illuminated address to the King congratulating him on his army's success in "North America" by taking the capital of the extensive province of Canada. In the same newspaper two weeks later Bath Council offered a generous bounty of two guineas to any "able-bodied landsman" who voluntarily entered the King's service in the Regiment of Royal Volunteers.

The Gainsborough girls might have been more interested in an advertisement in the same journal inviting them to visit the Market Place to see "The Great Christmas Loaf." This was an annual event in whichMr Brookmen at The Jolly Butchers amused his customers by baking a giant loaf measuring twelve feet long, over five feet in circumference and weighing four hundred pounds.

At this time Britain and Fance were engaged in a bitter struggle over possession of North America. Many families had relatives involved in the war and the press was full of reports from the front, often delayed for weeks, of course, as editors had to rely on sailing ships crossing the Atlantic to carry news of the latest battles.

Bath was at the height of its fame as a spa town. Every winter London's most fashionable individuals crowded the streets surrounding the notorious Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms in which gossip and rumour ran rife and folly, wit and wealth ruled the day. Outstanding authors and playwrights like Sheridan, Goldsmith and Fanny Burney drew on the extreme behaviour of many of these colourful individuals who provided material for their successful novels and plays.

Bath was a winter destination, fashionable from October onwards, but by the end of May everyone of distinction had fled, leaving the resident population of about 15,000 to complain about the heavy humidity of summer. James Quin, the actor who became Gainsborough's friend, famously described Bath as being "the cradle of age and a fine slope to the grave." Today some residents believe that nothing has changed in the intervening years, choosing to ignore the increasing influence of the University of Bath and its thousands of young resident students. Nevertheless, an old friend of mine always refers to Bath as Toy Town. "Let's get out of Toy Town and go to London," he cries.

Gainsborough's decision to reside in Bath indicated his reluctant acceptance of the fact that, in order to make a comfortable living for himself, his demanding wife and his two young daughters, he had to devote himself to a life dominated by what he described despairingly as the drudgery of face-painting.

Strange as it might seem now, given his ability to achieve a remarkable likeness (a talent envied by most of his competitors and one which thrust him to the top of his profession) he took no pleasure in the process. There was never any doubt that his real love was reserved for painting landscapes. The sad truth was that in mid 18th C England there was virtually no market for his work based on the natural world he loved so dearly. He faced a dilemma on coming to Bath but really had no choice in the matter. Margaret's legacy was sufficient to provide a basic living while the family lived in the country town of Ipswich, but no longer. Gainsborough had no option but to comply with Margaret's constant urging to promote himself as a portrait painter. To do this successfully he needed to find a central location in premises large enough to house his family as well as providing himself with a painting room and an exhibition room spacious enough to display his full-length portraits to advantage.

Margaret's aristocratic connections were now to come into play and it was not long before the elite socialites living in and around Bath were making appointments with the newly-arrived artist. Gainsborough complained frequently that 'gentlemen' were his enemies in the sense that his painting time and energy were exhausted by having to paint their portraits. He clearly preferred to devote his time to painting the rural scenes and folk as he observed them in the countryside, but he realized Margaret was right and he was forced back to his easel to paint faces, and found himself on the road to fame and fortune.

Margaret's major contribution to her husband's life appears to have been in providing a stable base for the family. And there is no doubt that Gainsborough loved his family. However, domestic life in his eyes was linked forever with the constant demand to produce portraits, more and more of them as his fame increased, while all he wanted was freedom to paint the landscapes he loved. Always a rebel in his soul he escaped whenever he could from the discipline Margaret imposed upon him at home to indulge the darker side of his character in the inns and alleyways frequented by a lower social order.