Twin pillars of the establishment
THE LETTERS OF THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH edited by John Hayles Yale, £30, pp. 208 THE LE TIERS OF SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS edited by John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe Yale, .E30, pp. 290 SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS: A COMPLETE CATALOGUE OF HIS PAINTINGS edited by David Mannings Yale, 2 volumes, £150, pp. 1,200 hen two great creative figures work in close proximity, it's always tempting for critical ingenuity to turn it into some kind of argument, out of which will emerge the future of the art. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Schoenberg or Stravinsky? Beethoven or Schubert? The two alternatives represented by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough have gone on haunting English painting ever since, and all great painters may be placed as followers of one or the other. The learned, idealistic, moralising manner promoted by Reynolds produced the preRaphaelites, Stanley Spencer and a whole school of contemporary conceptual artists, heavy on significance; Gainsborough, who seems to have disliked overt meaning in paintings, who pursued a line of rapturous, observed poetry, spawned Turner and a whole line of artists who trust, above all, the effects of the eye, down to Gary Hume. To read their letters side by side is a fascinating experience. They observed and admired each other to a great extent — Gainsborough's last letter, from his deathbed, is to Reynolds, asking him to come and look at his 'Woodman', and Reynolds' famous 14th Discourse is a warily admiring account of Gainsborough's art and technique. But they seem worlds away from each other, and it is hard not to make a conscious choice between them.
Of course, the distinctions can be overstated. It is surprising that it is Reynolds who strongly advises Nicholas Pocock 'to paint from nature instead of drawing; to carry your palette and pencils to the water side'. Even more difficult to accept is the undoubted fact that Gainsborough, far from producing his landscapes by the pleinair method,
framed a kind of model of landskips, on his table, composed of broke stones, dried herbs and pieces of looking glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees, and water. How far this latter practice may be useful in giving hints [Reynolds drily observes], the professors of landskip can best determine.
Moreover, there are signs that Gainsborough occasionally thought of his landscapes as having some kind of symbolic significance:
Don't you think a Jackass three quarters asleep upon the ridge of a Bank undermined and mouldring away is very expressive of the happiness of not seeing danger?
Still, the distinction stands. For Reynolds, English painting would never attain the dignity of a national school unless it turned away from mere portraits and landscapes and attempted high history painting and allegories, and dressed up portraiture in all the dignity of classical mythology. As for Gainsborough, he once wrote, wonderfully, 'I like truth and Day light.'
For the moment, taste is markedly shifting away from Reynolds, and with every
generation another of his contemporaries starts to seem more remarkable and impressive than him. The greatness of Allan Ramsay and Joseph Wright has long been acknowledged; since an unforgettable Tate show, Stubbs has started to seem like the grandest painter of the age. A splendid account of Reynolds at the Royal Academy in 1986, and, now, a magnificent catalogue raisonne of the paintings, have, by contrast, failed to stem a general downgrading in Reynolds' stock.
Now that Blake's insulting annotations to the Discourses are probably better known than the Discourses themselves — 'This Man was Hired to Depress Art' — it is probably fair to mount a case for the defence. Reynolds certainly represents an increase in the ambition and variety in English painting. If you place the stormy 'Commodore Keppel', the painting which made his reputation, next to the scrupulous, graceful works of his master, Thomas Hudson, it is clear that a new boldness is making itself felt. The paint swoops and roars; the composition is full of movement and rapid inspiration. Here is a painter who has seen and understood European painting; the spirit of Tintoretto had never entered into English painting before.
And Reynolds' painting, subsequently, shows a tremendous inventiveness in its approach to subjects and poses. The 'Master Crewe', a small boy posing as Holbein's 'Henry VIII' or the beautiful and strange 'Miss Abington as "Prue"' (the first of a long line of portraits of ladies of questionable virtue sitting on a chair the wrong way round; the photographer who so snapped Christine Keeler might have had it in mind), or the unusual subject of 'The Infant Hercules' for Catherine the Great, an allusion to the growing strength of the Russian empire: these were the inventions of an unusually fertile mind. Sometimes Reynolds blundered, and, as Horace Walpole said, it was rather odd to paint Lady Sarah Bunbury sacrificing to the Graces when everyone knew she greatly preferred playing cricket and 'eating beefsteaks on the Steyne at Brighton'. As Gainsborough said, 'nothing can be more absurd than the foolish custom of Painters dressing people like scaramouches'. But there is a frequent, enchanting wit there; the subject of Hercules choosing between vice and virtue had been a favourite one ever since Shaftesbury had commended it to British painters, but it was only Reynolds who turned it inside out and painted a splendid tableau of David Garrick choosing between the muses of comedy and tragedy.
Of course, there are things to be said against him. There are serious technical flaws in his work, and his Rembrandtinspired experimentation often resulted in paintings which quickly rotted off the canvas, or portraits which went slowly green and mouldy, like the picture of Dorian Gray. Usually, his allusions are tactful and resonant, such as the classical model which underlies the great `Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Her Daughter'; occasionally, as in 'The Montgomery Sisters Adorning a Term of Hymen', it spills over into silliness. But what he brought into English painting was ambition, and a sense of the European.
No one, on the other hand, will argue about Gainsborough's greatness, and it is pleasant to discover that his letters, too, are a complete delight. Teasing, intimate, funny, they open up the man to a wonderful degree. Writing to his greedy friend John Henderson:
Any one who sees you eat pig and plumb sauce, immediately feels that pleasure which a plump morsel, smoothly gliding through a narrow glib passage into the regions of bliss, and moistened with the dews of imagination, naturally creates.
He is frequently extremely vulgar, complaining about an idle engraver who has made a hash of one of his paintings:
Why will Bartolozzi, my Lord, spend his last precious moments in f----g a young Woman, instead of out doing all the World with a Graver; when perhaps all the World can out do Him at the former Work?
Reynolds' letters are far more pompous, and there is a great deal of sucking up to noblemen which has to be got through; far more selfconscious defence of his own manner, too, dry runs for his lectures. Gainsborough's comments on painting are fewer — you feel that one of the wonderful things about his art is that there is so much less to say about it — but always to the point.
Every one knows that the grand Style must consist in plainness & simplicity, and that silks & sattins Pearls & triffling ornaments would be as hurtfull to simplicity, as flourishes in a Psalm Tune; but Fresco would no more do for Portraits, than an Organ would please Ladies in the hands of Fischer [a virtuoso oboist]; there must be Variety of lively touches and surprizing Effects to make the Heart dance, or else they had better be in a Church.
The delight of the letters, though, is in their vivacious rendering of domestic life; a row, for instance, between Gainsborough and his wife about how long he has taken to paint a picture:
Said She, you find Mr Unwin is so much of a Gentleman now, that he would not mention a Word to know if Mrs Unwin's Picture was finished, and you so much of a scrubb that you'1 not get it done for him
They are two great painters, of course, but Gainsborough's greatness was in the art that conceals art: his marvellous ability to labour long and hard to produce a canvas of supreme naturalness. They are paintings, as he once said, where 'one part of a Picture ought to be like the first part of a Tune, that you can guess what follows, and that makes the second part of the Tune'. Reynolds' effort and ambition are always on the surface, and they are much easier paintings to explain. Nevertheless, anyone who takes the trouble to work through the catalogue raisonne will be left with a feeling of huge respect; will understand, too, what Gainsborough meant when he once said of Reynolds, 'Damn him, how various he is!' Love. however, is a different matter.