If ever this nation should produce a genius sufficient to acquire to us the honorable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in this history of art, among the very first of that rising name.
—Sir Joshua Reynolds
Most biographies are written with intent either to make the man a demigod or else to damn him as a rogue who has hoodwinked the world. Of the first-mentioned class, Weems’ “Life of Washington” must ever stand as the true type. The author is so fearful that he will not think well of his subject that he conceals every attribute of our common humanity, and gives us a being almost devoid of eyes, ears, organs, dimensions, passions. Next to Weems, in point of literary atrocity, comes John S. C. Abbott, whose life of Napoleon is a splendid concealment of the man.
Of those who have written biographies for the sake of belittling their subject, John Gait’s “Life of Byron” occupies a conspicuous position. But for books written for the double purpose of downing the subject and elevating the author, Philip Thicknesse’s “Life of Gainsborough” must stand first. The book is so bad that it is interesting, and so stupid that it will never die. Thicknesse had a quarrel with Gainsborough, and three-fourths of the volume is given up to a minute recital of “says he” and “says I.” It is really only an extended pamphlet written by an arch-bore with intent to get even with his man.
The writer regards his petty affairs as of prime importance to the world, and he shows with great care, and not a single flash of wit, how all of Thomas Gainsborough’s success in life was brought about by Thicknesse. And then, behold! after Thicknesse had made the man by hand, all he received for pay was ingratitude and insolence! Thicknesse was always good, kind, unselfish and disinterested; while Gainsborough was ungrateful, procrastinating, absurd and malicious– this according to Thicknesse, who was on the spot and knew. Well, I guess so!
Brock-Arnold describes Thicknesse as “a fussy, ostentatious, irrepressible busybody, without the faintest conception of delicacy or modesty, who seems to think he has a heaven-born right to patronize Gainsborough, and to take charge of his affairs.”
The aristocratic and pompous Thicknesse presented the painter to his friends, and also gave much advice about how he should conduct himself. He also loaned him a fiddle and presented him a viola da gamba, and often invited him to dinner. For these favors Gainsborough promised to paint a portrait of Thicknesse, but never got beyond washing in the background. During ten years he made thirty-seven excuses for not doing the work, and as for Mrs. Gainsborough, she once had the temerity to hand the redoubtable Thicknesse his cocked hat and cane and show him the door. From this, Thicknesse is emboldened to make certain remarks about Mrs. Gainsborough’s pedigree, and to suggest that if Thomas Gainsborough had married a different woman he might have been a different painter. Thicknesse, throughout the book, thrusts himself into the breach and poses as the Injured One.
On reading “the work” it is hard to believe it was written in sober, serious earnest–it contains such an intolerable deal of Thicknesse and so little of Gainsborough. The Mother Gamp flavor is upon every page. Andrew Lang might have written it to show the literary style of a disgruntled dead author.
And the curious part is that, up to Eighteen Hundred Twenty-nine, Thicknesse held the stage, and many people took his portrait of Gainsborough as authentic. In that year Allan Cunningham put the great painter in his proper light, and thanks to the minute researches of Fulcher and others, we know the man as though he had lived yesterday.
The father of Gainsborough was a tradesman of acute instincts. He resided at Sudbury, in Suffolk, seventy miles from London. It was a time when every thrifty merchant lived over his place of business, so as to be on hand when buyers came; to ward off robbers; and to sweep the sidewalk, making all tidy before breakfast. Gainsborough pere was fairly prosperous, but not prosperous enough to support any of his nine children in idleness. They all worked, took a Saturday night “tub,” and went to the Independent Church in decent attire on Sunday.