Exhibition | Gainsborough and the Theatre

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on July 29, 2018

This fall at The Holburne Museum:

Gainsborough and the Theatre
The Holburne Museum, Bath, 5 October 2018 — 20 January 2019

Curated by Hugh Belsey and Susan Sloman

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs, Siddons, 1785 (London: The National Gallery).

By bringing together some of Thomas Gainsborough’s finest portraits of his friends in the theatre, this exhibition will create a conversation between the leading actors, managers, musicians, playwrights, designers, dancers, and critics of the 1760s–80s. Gainsborough and the Theatre explores themes of celebrity, naturalism, performance, and friendship through some of the most touching likenesses by ‘the most faithful disciple of Nature that ever painted’. The exhibition will include 37 objects, including 15 oil portraits by Gainsborough, works on paper (including satires, views of theatres, and playbills), and ephemera from public and private collections across the UK.

Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, theatre became an increasingly popular pastime, with existing playhouses enlarged and others newly commissioned throughout London and the provinces—particularly in Bath, where the Holburne Museum is located. In 1759, 32-year-old Gainsborough arrived in Bath, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. Having already garnered a reputation as a skilled portraitist, he soon found a keen clientele among Bath’s fashionable (and well-off) visitors. Gainsborough’s arrival in the West Country coincided with the rising wealth and social status of leading actors, such as James Quin and David Garrick, both of whom he painted. His friendship with the pair opened more doors for him, both in Bath and then later in London. The two actors also enabled Gainsborough to explore naturalism in portraiture, just as they and their contemporaries were turning to less artificial forms of performance in theatre, music, and dance.

Gainsborough & the Theatre is supported by Bath Spa University, Gainsborough Bath Spa Hotel, and a publications grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art—with Farrow and Ball as the exhibition paint partner.

Hugh Belsey and Susan Sloman, Gainsborough and the Theatre (London: Philip Wilson, 2018), 112 pages, ISBN: 978-1781300664, $20.

Based on new research this book draws together a group of works from public and private collections to examine, for the first time, the relationship that Gainsborough had with the theatrical world and the most celebrated stage artists of his day. His advocate Henry Bate, editor of the Morning Herald, wrote one of the most successful theatrical afterpieces of the period.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) was linked with the stage through personal friendships with James Quinn, David Garrick and Sarah Siddons, the most renowned actors of the eighteenth century. He painted notable portraits of these and twenty others, including dramatists, dancers and composers.

Not long after Gainsborough moved from Bath to London in 1774 the management of the Drury Lane Theatre passed to the artist’s friends Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Thomas Linley. At this period London’s theatres were undergoing regular refurbishment to take account of technical innovations in lighting and stage machinery. At the King’s Theatre in Haymarket in 1778 the ‘elegant improvements’ included frontispiece figures emblematic of Music and Dancing painted in monochrome by Gainsborough.

The book establishes the artist’s place within Bath and London’s theatrical worlds. It will show why the art of ballet, and in particular Gainsborough’s sitters Gaetan Vestris, Auguste Vestris, and Giovanna Baccelli rose to prominence in 1780, and examines parallels between Gainsborough’s much admired painterly naturalism and the theatrical naturalism of David Garrick and Mrs. Siddons.

Hugh Belsey formed a collection of the artist’s work at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury much of which was published in Gainsborough at Gainsborough’s House (2002). During his time at the museum he organised many exhibitions most notably Gainsborough’s Family (1988) and, with Felicity Owen, From Gainsborough to Constable (1991).

Susan Sloman is an independent researcher and writer. Since her first article on Gainsborough in 1992 she has contributed new research on the painter in The Burlington Magazine and published Gainsborough in Bath (2002) and Gainsborough’s Landscapes (2011) and has contributed to both Sensation and Sensibility (ed. Ann Bermingham, 2005) and Gainsborough’s Family (ed. David Solkin, 2018).

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