The Circus

The Circus

Pp 169-171

18th C

Margaret Gainsborough managed her husband's accounts assiduously, tried but failed to manage the man himself but, to a degree, controlled his work.

His letters offer plenty of evidence of "old Margaret" urging him back to work to finish this portrait or that. Often he left a painting unfinished for months, even years, to her chagrin. It was she who insisted that Gainsborough remembered to add the packing costs to his bill when sending off a portrait to the sitter, even though he admitted finding the cost (in one case seven shillings) too trivial and embarrassing to mention.

Gainsborough wa always a convivial soul who enjoyed having his friends to stay in the house. Later, when living at 17 The Circus and letting out rooms to lodgers, there was space to accommodate only one couple and their servants at any one time. Margaret knew that any friends staying in the house occupied rooms which would otherwise be let out at top rate for accommoidation at the height of the six month season. She did all she could to discourage her husband from inviting his friends to stay. Travel at the time was difficult, dangerous and tiring and friends tended to remain for a period of weeks if not months after a long journey. This represented a serious loss of income.

In 1774 Gainsborough left 17 The circus to spend an indulgently pleasurable time in London, away from Margaret's watchful eye. With his friend the history and decorative painter, Giovanni Battista Cipriani and his roisterous colleagues, Gainsborough wrote to a friend that he was "enjoying what I like up to the hilt." His comments in earlier correspondence made it clear that those words referred to sexual intercourse with unnamed women assumed to be prostitutes. He indicated that, if it were not for his family, he would love to join these friends more often in pursuit of similar pleasures.

Gainsborough was profligate with his money and it appears that Margaret had every reason to be concerned about the way in which her successful husband conducted not only his appetite for wine and women, but also his well-known generosity in providing hospitality of all kinds for his friends at all levels of society. She might also have worried about contracting sexually transmitted diseases from her husband following his affairs with the women of the night.

Philip Thickness might have encouraged Gainsborough's dalliance by expressing his own belief that opium was a useful treatment to ensure a long life. He advised gentlemen to breath in the breath of virgins to improve their own health, helpfully adding that Bath was the very best place in the country where that particular medium might be found and conveyed by the most beautiful of females.