This magnificent landscape which dates from circa 1786 demonstrates all the finest qualities of Gainsborough's late romantic style that was greeted with such acclaim by contemporary critics whenever his canvases were exhibited. From 1785, after many disagreements over the hanging of his works at the Royal Academy, Gainsborough started to exhibit his paintings in his own gallery at his residence, Schomberg House, Pall Mall.
In 1786, the Rev. Henry Bate-Dudley, collector, patron and friend of Gainsborough, published a note in the Morning Herald describing a group of seven small landscape paintings that he had seen there. Clearly impressed, he wrote in glowing terms, especially of the present work:
'The next picture, in point of dimensions, is a representation of a woody country, the face of which is covered with variety; distant thickets, jutting head-lands, trees rich with foliage of the most spirited penciling, and here and there diversified with the yellow of Autumn. On a sunny bank, kept a proper distance, sheep are browsing; a cottage is seen near, and in the fore ground a herdsman is driving cattle to a sedgy watering place. The light and shade of this picture diffuses a fine effect over the scene, and a sky, rich with fervid clouds, adds to the beauty of the landscape'.
Many of Gainsborough's important landscape paintings were held in such esteem that they were often copied. It is interesting to note that of his smaller exhibition pieces the present canvas appears to have been the most frequently copied, with no fewer than four near period replicas recorded.
The essence of Gainsborough's art as a landscape painter is to a certain extent one of distance based on experience. He was to all purposes a painter of the imagination, his idealized landscapes based on early years of observation followed by years of city dwelling. In his early years Gainsborough's debt to the seventeenth-century Dutch school and to Claude is obvious; however, what marks his work out is his constant refining of his vision over forty years and treatment of an 'ideal' landscape within a limited range of pastoral elements. Indeed, the present subject matter was one that Gainsborough adopted throughout his career, usually with small variations. For example, A Wooded Landscape with Herdsmen and Three Cows of the same period (Tate Britain, London; Hayes, op. cit., no. 179) is a similar subject, but with a park gate rather than a cottage. There is another painting with a comparable subject, painted some years earlier, between 1768-71 (fig. 1; Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, London; op. cit., no. 95).
In the last years of his life Gainsborough achieved what may been seen as one of the glories of western art of the period, the shimmering images in which man and landscape are in harmony, and which in a few works achieve a form of abstraction. Drawing was one of the passions of Gainsborough's life, and as one of the most adventurous and innovative technicians of the century, he was constantly trying to find new methods of fully exploiting the potential of the media with which he was working. In his late oil paintings Gainsborough treated the medium as if it were watercolor, building up the image with underpainting of heavily thinned pigments on which he added layer upon layer of glazes, achieving a remarkable degree of transparency and movement. The present picture survives in a remarkable state of preservation with its delicate color glazes intact.
It appears likely that this painting and its pendant, Wooded Rocky Landscape with Mounted Peasant, Drover and Cattle, and Distant Building (fig. 2; private collection; op. cit., no. 181) were acquired directly from Gainsborough by Robert Palmer, the Duke of Bedford's principal agent in the 1780s and a wealthy man in his own right.