This magnificent and exceptionally painterly landscape was executed towards the very end of Gainsborough's life, when he was based in London, having left Bath in 1773, and had secured royal patronage and favour. It shows Gainsborough's increasingly confident and experimental approach to painting, his spontaneous brushwork aiming at broad effects of tonal values and exhibiting a newfound freedom in conception as well as execution. By this stage in his career, as Buchwald comments, 'possibly Gainsborough felt an independence bred of secure fame; perhaps his ambition at last caught up with his talent' (op.cit).
The broad outlines of the composition, in the disposition of the trees and the angle of the gently sloping path, relate closely to Gainsborough's The Market Cart of 1786, which he had exhibited at his apartment in Schomberg House, Pall Mall (72½ x 60¼ in.; Tate Gallery, London; J. Hayes, op.cit, 1982, p.566-569, no.183) (Fig.2). In that picture, however, the herdsman driving cattle is replaced by a fully laden market cart accompanied by a dog and children, and travellers appear in the foreground, and a faggot collector on the far edge of the path. In addition, a cluster of trees is added in the far left of the composition to frame a mountainous vista.
Woodall suggested that the present picture was a straightforward study for The Market Cart (op.cit, 1939, p.74). More recently, however, Hayes suggested that it seems likely to be 'an oil sketch for a composition with which, for some reason, Gainsborough felt dissatisfied... …afterwards he turned this sketch to good account in developing the composition of The Market Cart' (op.cit, 1982, p.566). Hayes elaborates on this idea by suggesting that 'the scale of the magnificent trees may have seemed out of keeping with the simple, pastoral subject', and later refers to 'the grandeur already fully apparent in this splendid conception' (op.cit, p.568). Judy Egerton takes this theory further by commenting that 'the spontaneous nature of this sketch may suggest that it was begun as a picture in its own right rather than designed as a preliminary study for The Market Cart'. She then continues, 'More purely pastoral than The Market Cart, and less than half its size, the sketch was probably left unfinished because its own beauty quickly suggested the possibilities of a larger, more elaborate picture... those towering trees and the fall of light upon them, provided the basis for the larger canvas and heightened spectacle of The Market Cart' (op.cit, p.128).
When dating the present work to 1786, Hayes points to stylistic links with Wooded Rocky Landscape with Rustic Lovers, Cows drinking at a Fountain, and Goats (24½ x 29½ in.; Lord Egremont, Petworth House; Hayes, op.cit, p.560-561, no.178), in the 'rich, broken impasto in the lights of the clouds, the rough highlighting of the cows and the washy treatment of the foliage' (op.cit, p.566). The very thin application of oil in the present work, in broad flat washes and sweeping strokes, also brings to mind Gainsborough's wash drawings. Woodall commented that 'with the palette swimming in turpentine, [the present work] is really more like a watercolour on canvas than an oil painting' (op.cit.). Hayes highlights affinities with one late wash drawing in particular: 'The canvas is brilliantly sketchy, with beautifully differentiated effects of light, and is comparable in technique with such masterly late wash drawings as the sheet in Berlin' (Wooded Landscape with Cow standing beside a Pool; black and brown chalks, with grey and grey-black washes, heightened with white, 9½ x 14 5/8 in.; Ehemals Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem; Hayes, op.cit., 1970, p.294, no.809) (Fig.3). This affinity in technique highlights Gainsborough's increasingly experimental approach to media. As early as the 1760s, Gainsborough was mixing pencil, watercolour and gouache, and chalk and watercolour, and varnishing the resulting drawings, thus undermining the sanctioned hierarchical division of media and blurring the boundary between drawing and painting in a manner aimed to raise the status of the former.
This picture was sold from the collection of Mrs R.J. Walker, Bramshott Court, Hampshire, at Christie's in 1928, along with landscapes by Rembrandt and Turner, and portraits by Reynolds and Romney. By 1936, it was in the collection of the Hon. Turner Gervase Beckett, 1st Bt. (1866-1937), Kirkdale Manor, Nawton, Helmsley, with another late work by Gainsborough, Coastal Scene with Sailing Boats and Rowing Boats, Shepherds and Sheep dated c.1783-84 (Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven; Hayes, op.cit, 1982, p.520, no.149). A newspaper proprietor and Conservative politician, Beckett represented Whitby, Scarborough and Whitby and Leeds North in the House of Commons. The picture descended to Sir Martyn Beckett, 2nd Bt. (1918-2001), a leading Yorkshire architect who worked on major projects throughout Britain, including the rebuilding of the east end of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, which he described as 'the most exciting architectural challenge I have ever met'. A keen supporter of the arts, Sir Martyn was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Friend of the York City Art Gallery. To the collection of Old Masters that he inherited from his father, he added modern paintings and sculptures by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.