The painters’ father, John Gainsborough, was one of the last of the family to engage in the manufacture of woollen goods; but he is said to have discovered the secret of woollen shroud making in Coventry, and to have introduced it into Sudbury, where, for a time, he enjoyed a monopoly of the trade. However, he does not seem to have been very successful in the conduct of his affairs, and his property at the time of his death in 1748 was renounced by his wife and children in favour of a creditor. He was generous to a fault and possessed a great sense of humour, both of which were richly inherited by his son.
Gainsborough’s mother was the sister of the Reverend Humphrey Burroughs, the headmaster of the ancient Grammar School at Sudbury, which Thomas and his brothers attended. Thomas had 4 brothers and 4 sisters.
The eldest, John, nicknamed “Scheming Jack”, was an ingenious, if somewhat purposeless inventor, and on one occasion he attempted to fly from the roof of a summerhouse with a pair of wings of his own manufacture, but landed in the ditch, profoundly humiliated, but fortunately unhurt. Humphrey, another brother, was a Nonconformist clergyman to whom Thomas was always much attached; like John, he took a great interest in mechanics and engineering, but had more capacity in applying his ideas. He was awarded a premium by the society of Arts for a mill plough and a hive mill.
When John Constable visited Sudbury many years after Gainsborough was working there, he said, “It is a delightful country for a painter, I fancy, I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree,” and Gainsborough often said in later life that Suffolk had made him a painter.
In 1740, when he was only 13, Gainsborough set out for London, and lodged in the house of a silversmith. Through the good offices of the silversmith, Gainsborough made acquaintance of the Frenchman, Gravelot. Gravelot was in England for a number of years, and is chiefly remembered for his very charming vignettes and designs for book illustrations. He was both an accomplished engraver and a sensitive and delicate draughtsman and, working with him, Gainsborough did not only acquire skill in the use of the engrave and etching needle, but also something of that sense of style and easy refinement associated with the French school. Gravelot had considerable standing among the artists of the day and was very friendly with Hogarth. He was, like Hogarth, a caricaturist and mocked somewhat defiantly the artistic shibboleths of the time. In the small artistic circle in London, Gainsborough no doubt met Hogarth, whose independent attitude would be likely to appeal to him, and whose fresh approach to the problems of painting had much influence on Gainsborough’s work.
Whilst he lived in London, Gainsborough kept himself by painting small portraits and landscapes and by making drawings for the engravers. He also supplemented his resources by making models. He made his 1st essays in art by modelling figures of cows, horses and dogs, in which he attained great excellence. There is a cast in the plaster shops of an old horse that he modelled which has peculiar merits. In later life Gainsborough often amused himself by modelling, and on one occasion after a concert at Bath, he was so charmed by Miss Linley’s voice that he sent his servant for a bit of clay with which he made and coloured her head. Sometimes he used to wax candles on the table to make impromptu models.
Gainsborough’s love of landscape painting would naturally attract him to Suffolk, and he...