The Circus

The Circus

Pp 319-323

18th C

So, the Gainsborough girls returned from their boarding school in London in this lcimate of change, described earlier. They were now in their late teens, at an age which placed them directly into the highly competitive marriage market. Their mother was determined to see them marry well but their father was more realistic, aware that their prospects of capturing wealthy husbands was less than promising. As well, over the next year or two, he realised that Mary was beginning to exhibit some worrying patterns of behaviour.

Gainsborough's last double portrait of his daughters was painted when the family lived here at No. 17 The Circus, between 1770 and 1774. Mary and Margaret were by then in their early twenties, still unmarried and with no evidence of becoming engaged. They are pictured standing close together, Margaret on the left, Mary's arm around her younger sister's shoulders, a faithful dog by their side. They are dressed in elegant gowns and depicted in a romantic setting, looking for all the world like ladies of leisure, which they were not: Mary was by then a talented draughtsman and Margaret an accomplished musician. Their father described them ironically as "these fine ladies" and they were keen to be seen a such, rather than to be known as women required to seek work for a living.

The hard truth was, of course, that as daughters of a working artist they were not regarded by Georgian society as "ladies" and they had no dowries worth speaking of. Gainsborough had serious doubts about his wife's ambitious desires to see them married off to wealthy husbands. Bath was the centre of the social world where suitors and scoundrels alike combed the Assembly Rooms for attractive and, most importantly, wealthy, well-born young brides. The Gainsborough girls had little chance to win this race. They were never part of the first rank in Bath society and when the family moved to London in 1774, their social aspirations were further restricted. While Gainsborough himself moved on to become Court Painter, highly regarded by the King and Queen, his wife and daughters did not rise with him and appear to have played no part in fashionable society of the day.

Sadly, with hindsight, we know that at this point in their young lives, Mary and Margaret faced a disappointing future. It was at this time, as discussed earlier, that Johann Christian Fischer made his appearance, an attractive cocky man who was fully aware of his ability to attract women. A leading oboist of the day he was a member of the Queen's Band at the Palace. Gainsborough met him in the mid 1770's after the family had moved to London, and he painted a fine portrait of the musician. While he himself got on well with Fischer, Gainsborough never trusted him as far as his daughters were concerned. But both girls were attracted to the musician. Now in their mid twenties, considered old as potential brides, Gainsborough was worried. He wrote to his sister that he tried desperately to keep Fischer away from Mary and Margaret. He kept a close eye on Margaret, the younger daughter he assumed Fischer was attracted to, but while doing so "the other sly boots" turned out to be the subject of Fischer's pursuit. Mary virtually eloped with Fischer, marrying him on 21 February 1780. She managed to persuade her mother and father to attend the wedding as witnesses, but Gaisnborough's fear that this self-centered man would never bring his daughter happiness proved correct: the marriage lasted no more than six months. Mary returned home to live with her parents and from this time her fragile mental state became increasingly obvious, finally collapsing into madness. Margaret, too, displayed a determined wilfulness which caused her parents some concern, but she was never as unstable as Mary.