These beautifully preserved portraits, showing Sir Richard Brooke and his brother Thomas, are outstanding examples of Gainsborough’s late style and are arguably the most remarkable additions to the artist’s oeuvre to have reappeared since Professor Sir Ellis Waterhouse published his catalogue of the artist’s work in 1958. The portraits have remained in the collection of the family since they were painted and have, until now, never been seen together in public. Dated to circa 1781, the year in which Gainsborough exhibited his full-length portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte (Royal Collection) at the Royal Academy, the two pictures display the artist’s highly instinctive and impressionistic technique that secured his position, alongside his great rival Sir Joshua Reynolds, as the most celebrated British portraitist of the eighteenth century.
On 6 July 1781, Sir Richard Brooke inherited the title and family estates from his father, Sir Richard Brooke, 4th Bt. Shortly afterwards, he must have approached Gainsborough to paint his likeness and a portrait of his brother Thomas. Sir Richard’s request for a pendant of his brother rather than one of his wife, who he had married in 1780, must have been an exacting challenge for the artist as there are few precedents that show companion portraits of adult siblings. However, the artist was to face a similar opportunity later in the 1780s when Sir Edward Swinburne, 5th Bt., of Capheaton in Northumberland, commissioned head-and-shoulder portraits of himself (Private collection) and his two sons (both Detroit Institute of Art).
The two canvases must have been intended for the family seat, Norton Priory, near Runcorn, close to the River Mersey in the North of Cheshire (fig. 1). Sir Richard’s father had remodelled the house in the 1770s and we know from an inventory drawn up in 1865 that at the time both canvases hung in the Dining Room, in what may well have been their original positions. The neoclassical frames that furnish both paintings appear to have been carefully considered to compliment the decoration of the fourth baronet’s newly-built interior. There were particular reasons for Sir Richard to choose to link his ancestral portrait with one of his brother.xx There was just a year between Richard and Thomas Brooke and they were obviously very close. They both matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford, on the same day (15 November 1771) and later married sisters, daughters of a local Cheshire landowner, Sir Robert Cunliffe, 2nd Bt., within two days of each other. Later in their lives the brothers were both members of the Tarporley Hunt. Their mother-in-law, Mary, Lady Cunliffe, may have made them conscious of Gainsborough’s abilities as she had employed the artist to paint her portrait in the early 1760s. Perhaps the commission marked a turning point in the fortunes of the two brothers. Now in their late twenties, the elder sibling had inherited the estate and the younger one was to make his mark in other ways by representing Newton in Parliament from 1786 to 1807, serving as High Sheriff for Cheshire in 1810–11, and becoming Captain of the Cheshire Supplementary Militia in 1797.
Gainsborough often employed similar compositions for his portraits but he used subtle changes to reveal the character of his subjects. The variety of sitters shown in different portraits, which all have related formats, is instructive. There are four portraits, all of which date to circa 1786, that recall Sir Richard’s nonchalant pose and attest to the success of the composition: the portraits of Sir Thomas Whichcote, 5th Bt., and Thomas Hibbert (both Private collections), and those of William Yelverton Davenport and Lord de Dunstanville (both Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art). Interestingly, the portrait of Lord de Dunstanville is paired with a pendant of his wife (also painted in 1786 and now at Washington; figs. 2 and 3) and, as in the present pictures, Gainsborough treats the two canvases with a compositional balance and a complimentary colour scheme.
It is constructive further to compare the de Dunstanville portraits with those of the Brooke brothers. The portraits of the baronet and the nobleman are almost identical in pose, the only difference being that Sir Richard holds a round hat in his left hand and Lord de Dunstanville holds kid gloves in his. De Dunstanville is shown resting his right hand on a cane while Sir Richard holds a pair of gloves. The relationship of the sitter with the background is identical but there are subtleties that indicate the varied purpose of the two paintings. The angle of Sir Richard’s head is more commanding, while de Dunstanville appears to be in awe of his wife and the restrained colour of Sir Richard’s hands places greater emphasis on his face, while the diagonal of de Dunstanville’s left forearm is continued through to his right hand and makes a right angle with the background birch trunk. Both sitters are shown wearing clothes at the height of fashion. Powdered bag-wigs, high-collared coats with large brass buttons, doublebreasted, horizontal-striped waistcoats with layered lapels at the neck framing a jabon completed with a skillfully tied bow at the throat. Lady de Dunstanville, shown seated and looking at the beholder, wears Van Dyck dress complete with ostrichfeather fan, gathered sleeves and dogtooth edged buffon around her neckline that is set off with a beaver hat similar to the one made famous by Gainsborough in his portrait of Mrs Siddons (1785; London, National Gallery).
Thomas Brooke is shown in a more pensive pose and looks out of the picture towards his brother with deferential respect. He is seated on a bank, crosslegged and perhaps as reassurance he embraces a broken branch with his right arm. His wig and jabon are less stylised than his brother’s and he wears a less formal double-breasted green coat with a tangerine-coloured lining and a matching waistcoat that is set off by his black breeches and striped hose. His fingers are interlocked and he cradles his hands in a relaxed gesture over his fob, a visible mark of property and influence that is very obviously displayed in the portrait of his brother. The contrasting shirt ruffles of the two brothers are an exact parallel of their respective status and character. Sir Richard’s ruffles are pert and energetic with a lightening black line elucidating the form and the bow at the throat formed like an enlarged butterfly. It contrasts with Thomas’s more sober and restrained shirt frill and bow. This is a portrait of a country gentleman rather than a man of influence and position and with Sir Richard’s recent inheritance the new and distinct differences between the two brothers provide the purpose for the commission. Gainsborough has subtly used a greener, lighter palette in the portrait of Thomas Brooke and contrasted it with the more formal monochromatic tones of the portrait of his brother. The two portraits anticipate the role that each will take in the county, roles that the family had rehearsed during the previous two hundred years.
The Brooke family had been associated with Cheshire since Tudor times and after the dissolution of Norton Priory, Richard Brooke (d. 1569) purchased the estate from the Crown in 1545. The Brookes adapted the sixteenth century monastic buildings and it was only during the 1730s that Sir Thomas Brooke, 3rd Bt., rebuilt the house, though the architect he used is unrecorded. Forty years later his son, Sir Richard Brooke, 4th Bt., updated the house and possibly employed James Wyatt to design the north wing. The house was always under threat with the construction of canals and later railways through the estate and the burgeoning industry of Runcorn during the nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century the chemical industry had encroached on the estate to such an extent that Sir Richard Brooke, 9th Bt. abandoned the property and the eighteenth century house was eventually pulled down in 1928. During the 1970s archaeological investigations of the site revealed the extensive remains of the medieval priory.xx We are grateful to Hugh Belsey for his assistance with this entry.