Exhibition | Thomas Gainsborough: Methods of Making
Thomas Gainsborough, Wooded Landscape with Old Peasant and Donkeys outside a Barn, ca. 1755–57, oil on canvas 49.5 x 59.7 cm (Gainsborough’s House, accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to Gainsborough’s House in 2015).
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From Gainsborough’s House:
Thomas Gainsborough: Methods of Making
Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, Suffolk, 22 October 2016 — 19 February 2017
This exhibition marks the culmination of a conservation research project, generously funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and carried out in partnership with the University of Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute. Focusing on a single painting from the Gainsborough’s House collection, it sheds new light on the artist’s early painting technique and methods of working.
The painting in question was allocated to Gainsborough’s House in 2015 through the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme. Titled Wooded Landscape with Old Peasant and Donkeys outside a Barn, it has long been recognized as a significant work from Gainsborough’s Suffolk period, demonstrating his growing interest in the sentimental depiction of simple country folk. The identity of the principal subject is unknown, although an additional figure study by Gainsborough appears to represent the same man. Traditionally known as A Suffolk Costermonger, this mysterious character was reputedly well known in the Ipswich area.
A central part of the project has been the conservation and technical examination of the painting, carried out by Kari Rayner. Through the removal of yellowed varnish and overpaint, details previously obscured have been made visible. As part of her research, Kari has also created a partial reconstruction, revealing how Gainsborough’s canvas was prepared and how the paint was applied. The opportunity to view this reconstruction alongside the original painting affords a rare glimpse into the artist’s working methods.
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From the accompanying pamphlet detailing Rayner’s reconstruction:
The purpose of this reconstruction, carried out by Kari Rayner at the Hamilton Kerr institute, was to gain firsthand experience emulating Gainsborough’s painting technique. This type of study results in an increased understanding of the material aspects of a work of art and can provide unforeseen insights into the artist’s processes, interests, and influences. Unlike a replica, which reproduces a work in full, a reconstruction leaves the canvas support, priming, and underlayers of paint exposed so that the method of creation is visible to the viewer. This particular painting was an ideal candidate for reconstruction due to its excellent condition: treatment in the spring of 2016 ensured that discoloured varnish and past restorations did not significantly affect the appearance of the work.
During the process of reproducing Peasant and Donkeys, the painting’s minutest details were scrutinized. it soon became apparent that this was a highly experimental work in Gainsborough’s Suffolk period. He was clearly learning during the process of its execution, adjusting colours and tonal relationships as he painted. playing with the recession of space and varying the level of detail, he expertly guides the viewer’s eye through the work: his development of the composition is truly visionary. The observation of such details, facilitated by the creation of this reproduction, has led to an increased appreciation of Gainsborough’s skill as an artist at this formative early stage in his career.