The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 175 - 178

18th C

Surprisingly, given his love of socialising, Gainsborough appears to have been a shy man, blushing easily. His conversation was sprightly but licentious and he had no appetite for pointless small-talk which, if it arose, he dismissed quickly by the use of a witty remark. His friend William Jackson said the painter rarely read a book but was unequalled in his ability to write an original, amusing and lively letter to a friend.

Another of Gainsborough's friends, young Henry Angelo, son of the Royal Fencing Master, was England's foremost practitioner of the sport in the 18th C. He went so far as to say that Gainsborough was afraid of his wife Margaret and was never entirely at ease when at home, and equally worried when he was not, in case she discovered how much money he had spent on his days away. Thomas was generous to a fault according to his friends but Margaret was mean beyond belief in Angelo's view. Later, Gainsborough's son-in-law, Johann Christian Fischer, often teased him about allowing Margaret to brow-beat him so obviously, claiming that she was "receiver-general, paymaster-general and auditor" all rolled into one.

Indeed, her frugality was so well-known that even the Queen herself commented upon it. According to Henry Angelo, Fischer (at that time a musician at Court) told the Queen that his mother-in-law was "twin sister of the Old Lady in Threadneedle Street" and she would not be content until her husband poured into her lap a sum equal to the national debt.

Nevertheless, Margaret apparently bore Fischer no grudge because she left him £20 in her will to cover his mourning costs and to express her regard for him.

Let us gallop a few years ahead for a moment. Mary (or Molly as her father called her) the elder daughter, married Johann Christian Fischer on 21 February 1780 at St Anne's Church in Soho in London. Her father and mother and Gainsborough's nephew Dupont acted as witnesses. Earlier, both daughters had been infatuated by Fischer, who was seventeen years older than Mary. He was an oboe player devoted to his musical studies but rumoured to have few social graces and generally believed, at least by male commentators, to be imprudent and not over intelligent. Gainsborough had serious doubts about Fischer as a suitor and tried to prevent the marriage, but failed. When living in The Circus in 1768 Gainsborough started to paint a portrait of William Shakespeare but dissatisfied, abandoned the painting. Six years later on a whim, and not commissioned to do so, he picked up that particular unfinished canvas and painted over the Bard, creating an exquisite portrait of Fischer the musician. This full-length portrait, much admired at the time it was first exhibited in the artist's showroom (at the house where I am writing this account) and later when it was shown at the Royal Academy in London, is currently considered to be one of Gainsborough's finest full-length studies of a male. It is now in the collection of Her Majesty The Queen where, if you are lucky enough to stand in front of it, you might think about the painting of Shakespeare that lies beneath.