When Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was a boy he made a sketch of a suspicious-looking character peering over the orchard wall. The garden had recently been targeted by a thief, and Gainsborough’s drawing was so accurate that the man was identified and caught. This early forensic sketch secured Gainsborough’s reputation as a prodigious talent, and set the young provincial on his way to London to learn his trade.
Whether or not the story is true — it is perhaps too neat that the portraitist’s career in the ‘cursed face business’ should start with a rogue — the orchard where he sat is very much in evidence and currently in medlar season, the brown fruit dropping off the branches beside the long redbrick Georgian House where the artist was born in 1727.
Gainsborough’s home is now a museum, bought for the nation in 1961 to commemorate one of the greatest painters of the Regency period. Situated in Sudbury, a small market town about 70 miles north-east of London and surrounded by water meadows, the museum has recently reopened following an extensive £10-million restoration and redevelopment with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
According to the museum’s director, Mark Bills, the artist’s father John Gainsborough almost lost the house to debt in 1735, and had it not been for a rich relation who bought the property, the family would have been cast out onto the street. This early experience of financial volatility may well have sharpened the artist’s keen satirical eye for his future portraits of the great, and not so good of the British nobility.
The property, described as ‘a most excellent Brickt Mansion’ when it was eventually sold out of the family in the 1790s, is in fact two houses that John Gainsborough connected with a brick façade in 1723, and to which he later added a silk-weaving studio. The architects ZMMA have echoed this history in a local-brick and knapped flint woven façade on the new three-storey building, which provides a fully accessible entrance and three brand new exhibition spaces.
On the ground floor are two new galleries. The Gainsborough room is lined in green damask Sudbury silk, designed to echo the drawing rooms of Gainsborough’s aristocratic clients. It contains some of the artist’s greatest pictures, on loan from Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery. Space was an essential component of the new extension. ‘Showing full-length paintings by Gainsborough in the historic house was difficult,’ says Bills. ‘We were very restricted due to the low ceilings.’
Two other galleries operate as temporary exhibition spaces. Currently they are showcasing works by Flemish Impressionist and Symbolist painters and sculptors from the Phoebus Foundation. Notable works include Théo van Rysselberghe’s A Thuin ou La Partie de tennis, bought from Christie’s in July 2020.
The historic part of the property is devoted to Gainsborough’s life and his contemporaries. ‘We saw the house as a blank canvas.’ says Bills. ‘We wanted to use it to tell the story of Thomas Gainsborough, his life and his artistic legacy, but it would have been difficult in such a space to give an overall career of Gainsborough, so we decided to look at certain aspects.’
Much of that story is tied up in the surrounding landscape of Suffolk, the flat, golden countryside of the artist’s youth stretching out through meadowland and agricultural fields to dense ancient woodlands. One room includes artefacts and paintings by John Constable, a fellow Suffolker who found the open countryside the perfect foil for his blustery, weather-beaten skies.
In the parlour are portraits by the mid-20th-century painter Cedric Morris (1889-1982), who lived at Benton End near Sudbury. The artist ran the liberal East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, offering informal tuition and lectures for a small group of creative outcasts, among them Maggi Hambling and Lucian Freud. It is Hambling’s collection of paintings by Morris, which she donated to the museum, that line the walls of Gainsborough’s parlour. ‘They work perfectly in the house,’ says Bills. ‘It is the kind of room Morris lived in.’
Central to Gainsborough’s life was music: he was an enthusiastic member of a musical club, and was thought to have played the violin and the flute. Writing to his friend, the actor David Garrick (1717-1779), he would recount — with typical mocking humour — jocular evenings spent in the company of his fellow musicians, among them Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782). There are portraits of both Garrick and Bach in the upstairs music room, loaned from the National Portrait Gallery.
Finally there is a small temporary exhibition recounting the life of Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729-1780), a former slave, shopkeeper and essayist who became widely known through a series of letters he wrote to Lawrence Sterne, in which he persuaded the author of Tristram Shandy to promote the abolitionist cause. Sancho was painted by Gainsborough in 1768. ‘He was the first black man to vote in a British election,’ says Bills. ‘He had an extraordinary life, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to tell it to others.’
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Bills hopes the restoration of Gainsborough’s House will help Sudbury become a regional hub for heritage and culture in East Anglia. ‘Yes, it serves as a shrine to Gainsborough,’ he says. ‘But it also reveals the unique place Suffolk holds in the history of British art.’
Gainsborough’s House, 46 Gainsborough Street, Sudbury, Suffolk. The current exhibitions, Painting Flanders and Ignatius Sancho: A Portrait, will run until 26 February 2023