Saturday, August 14, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews


"Scattered Heritage": Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) – This portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews is one of the archytypal images of the eigthteenth century. It was painted in about 1750, shortly after the marriage of the young couple. The work successfully combines the gentry portrait at which Gainsborough excelled and from which he profited, with the landscape that he always wanted to paint. Gainsborough here displays his skills as a painter of convincingly changing weather and naturalistic scenery, still a novelty at this time. Rather than being depicted in a mythological landscape or park, Robert and Frances are shown relaxing under a tree on their Aubries estate near Sudbury in Suffolk. The tower of Lavenham Church can be seen in the background. The message of the work is pride in ownership, Robert stands nonchalently with a gun under his arm, while his wife sits on an elaborate Rococo-style wooden bench. The painting of Mrs Andrews's lap is unfinished, and commentators disagree what might have been intended to go there (book, game bird, child), and why it was not in the end painted in.

The painting follows the fashionable convention of the conversation piece, a (usually) small-scale portrait showing two or more people, often out of doors, here we are meant to admire Robert's progressive farming, lines of stubble showing that he has used a seed-drill. We are also expected to admire his other posessions, his dog, and his wife. The land shown is after harvest indicating the basis of their wealth and political power. But they are also shown as alien from it, their clothing is not that of a farmer, and the colours are a marked contrast to the hues of nature. It is also notable that the workers who produced their wealth are consicuously absent in this picture, giving this portrait an odd ambiguity. In the background the stormclouds are gathering as if to signal the onset of the industrial resolution which was soon to erode the economic monopoly of the landowning class.

Until some time in the 1950s the painting appears to have been in the possession of G.W. Andrews of Ashtead in Suffolk, a descendant of the individual portrayed. It seems then to have disappeared and has recently reappeared in the catalogue of a private collection of a Brazilian mobile phone company CEO.

Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews

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