Marking the 225th Anniversary of Gainsborough’s Death

Posted in anniversaries by Editor on August 2, 2013

When Valerie Hedquist, who’s finishing a book on the reception history of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, recently pointed out to me that today will mark the 225th anniversary of Gainsborough’s death, I was happy to invite her to contribute a posting, even happier that she agreed. And thus here, for a brief moment, she leads us alongside the painter’s coffin towards Kew . . .CH


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Born in 1727, Thomas Gainsborough fell ill in April 1788 and died of cancer several months later on Saturday, 2 August — 225 years ago today.

According to newspaper accounts, his death brought together “some of the most brilliant characters of the age.” Among the fifteen “few select friends” named in the obituary notice of the Whitehall Evening Post was Jonathan Buttall, regarded until recently as the subject of The Blue Boy. Along with men with connections to art, music, and theater, Buttall joined the procession of black-shrouded mourners traveling with the Gainsborough one last time as they accompanied his casket from the artist’s Pall Mall home westward to his burial plot at the Kew Green churchyard of St. Anne’s. While these individuals lived and worked in diverse London neighborhoods, their residences mostly concentrated in and around the artistic center of Soho, in contrast to the upscale West End, where Gainsborough had resided since 1774.

Who were these mourners? The surgeon and anatomist John Hunter and his neighbor, Sir Joshua; Thomas Linley and the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan; the American Benjamin West and the Swedish-born Scot, Sir William Chambers; the ‘father of English watercolour’ Paul Sandby; the wax portraitist Isaac Gosset and the stipple engraver Francesco Bartolozzi; the miniaturists Samuel Cotes and Jeremiah Meyer; the brother-in-law of the critic and newspaper publisher Sir Henry Bate Dudley, William Pearce; and Gainsborough’s nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, who, according to recent work by Susan Sloman, may be the actual sitter for Blue Boy.* Writing in his diary, Joseph Farington claimed it was Pearce at the artist’s bedside when he spoke his last words: “Vandyck was right.”

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* The most complete argument is made in Susan Sloman, “Gainsborough’s Blue Boy,” The Burlington Magazine 155 (April 2013): 231-37. Also see, Sloman, “ ’A Divine Countenance’: Gainsborough’s Portrait of His Nephew Rediscovered,” The Burlington Magazine 146 (May 2004), 319-22; and Sloman, in the exhibition catalogue Van Dyck in Britain, ed. by Karen Hearn (London: Tate Publishing, 2009).

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