The Circus

The Circus

Pp 368-373

18th C

The year 1774 was to prove most significant in the lives of all members of the Thomas Gainsborough family.  In March that year Thomas requested a friend in London to select for him an expensive item, a harpsichord, from the famous maker, Broadwood, and have it delivered to 17 The Circus.  This proved to be an odd and costly request because just a few weeks later he made a totally  unexpected decision to leave Bath and move the entire family, studio and household to London, including the Broadwood instrument which had to be sent back along the London Road to its new home, the west wing of Schomberg House, a mansion standing at an impresive address in Pall Mall where the artist had taken tenancy from midsummer that year and where the family remained until Gainsborough's death.

The decision to move was made incredibly swiftly and historians have argued over the reason for it.  The painter known as Wright of Derby moved to Bath shortly after the family departed and he commented in February 1775 that he had heard it said that the demand for portraits in both London and Bath was drying up and that was the reason Gainsborough decided to move to the larger city.

One of Gainsborough's later biographers, Jack Lindsay, believed the reason for the move might have been that the artist enjoyed his illicit plesures so much that he felt he would more easily escape the eagle eye of his wife in the greater sprawl of London.  But Philip Thickness, often an unrustworthy source, maintained that his friend left Bath for London because of a quarrel over a musical instrument  and this appears to be the real reason for the move:  a serious quarrel which occurred between Philip Thickness, his wife and Gainsborough.

Thickness wrote a full account of what occurred from his point of view and Thomas Gainsborough's direct descendants contacted in the 1850s also believed that their ancestor's decision to move to London was influenced by this dispute.

Philip Thickness was a difficult and quarrelsome man who throughout his life fell out with most of his friends and acquaintances.  His relationship with Gainsborough had begun many years earlier in Ipswich.  He claimed that he was responsible for the artist's decision to move to Bath and Thickness made it clear that he firmly believed that he was therefore responsible for the artist's subsequent success.

Gainsborough, however, found him difficult, often testy and irritating, but the friendship endured, in spite of the older man's intense dislike of Margaret.    At times Thickness was a burden to Gainsborough who, after this serious quarrel, appears to have been relieved to a certain extent, having rid himself of this old-man-of-the-sea who had clung to his back for so many years.

The subject of the quarrel was a serious dispute over the purchase by the artist of a rare and valuable musical instrument, a viola da gamba, the property of the beautiful Mrs Thickness whose charming portrait Gainsborough had painted some years earlier.  The terms of the sale involved the sum  of £100 and/or the promise of a portrait of Thickness to be painted by Thomas.  The painting was barely started and never finished and the payment was disputed by all three former friends.  The two men later corresponded on fairly friendly terms but the painful incident was never forgotten.

Whatever the reason for Gainsborough's decision to move to London it was made instantly and swiftly carried out in the late summer or early autumn of 1774.