The Circus

The Circus


18th C

Gainsborough exhibited an ambiguous attitude to the aristocracy.  He claimed to hate them as fools on one hand, but claimed close friendships with various titled men on the other.  George Pitt, the first Lord Rivers, he described as a staunch friend.  In the late 1760s he was invited to stay at Pitt's country house for, he understood, a night or two.   When he arrived his host was about to leave for Spain but pressed the artist to remain and in his absence paint a couple of family portraits.  To his consternation Gainsborough found himself detained at the house for three months, leaving an indignant Margaret to cope alone at home in The Circus.

In Pitt's absence Gainsborough was required to paint portraits of Pitt's daughter and son-in-law, Lord and Lady Ligonier, and he did so, creating a pair of portraits clearly designed to hang either side of a fireplace.

The lady, however, was playing away from home, a situation reflected in the manner in which Gainsborough, quite unaware of her adultery, composed the portaits, picking up on the tension between the two and depicting the married couple as separate entities, clearly not responding to each other.

Later it transpired that Penelope Ligonier had had an affair with her groom, spurned him in favour of a certain Count Alfieri, upon which the humble man from the stable block, determined on revenge, revealed all to her husband.

Rumours of the scandal soon spread, eagerly devoured by society.  Many viewers of Gainsborough's newly finished portraits presumed he must have known of Penelope's adulterous affairs but his colleagues believed he did not:  they knew he was fully capable of accurately assessing her attitude towards her husband over the hours she sat for him.  Gainsborough was naturally intuitive.

Whatever the reason, his portraits clearly reveal the emotional distance between this husband and wife, he leaning on his horse to the left of his portrait, she leaning in the opposite direction on a pedestal to the right of her image, averting her gaze, and looking down, not at her husband.  No doubt Gainsborough returned to Bath after his unexpectedly prolonged stay in Pitt's country mansion with some juicy gossip to entertain Margaret and perhaps to compensate for his lengthy absence.