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Thomas Gainsborough had a passion for the English landscape, devoting many hours to studying the effects of changing light and shade on the woods and fields of his local surroundings, first around Ipswich, where he moved from London in 1752, and then in Bath, where he worked from 1759 to 1773. He was influenced by the Dutch landscape artist Jacob van Ruisdael, but adapted his techniques to English settings. According to Sir Joshua Reyonds, first director of the Royal Academy in 1768, when failing light or intemperate weather precluded working out of doors, Gainsborough would carry tree branches and other vegetation into his studio so that he could study them at leisure. He also created miniature 'landskips' out of broken stones, dried herbs, broccoli and the like, transforming them into sketches of rocks, trees and water, and using candles to create appropriate light effects. Reynolds, Gainsborough's greatest rival, disapproved of this practice, declaring that artists should seek to improve the natural world, making a more ideal vision.
Yet Gainsborough's keen eye offers an appealing perspective on 18th century rural life. This wash drawing, which Gainsborough expert Hugh Belsey believes is likely to be a sketch for a larger watercolour, depicts a rural scene that looks very much like the Gainsborough or more famously Constable countryside of East Anglia and may suggest a date earlier than the 1760s. It is certainly coincidental, but the resemblance of the placement of cottage and pond to John Constable's world-famous The Hay Wain (National Gallery, London), which dates from 1821, a good 60 years after this drawing, is more than passing. The subject is characteristically low key and intimately studied from nature. A local figure rides away from the cottage and towards the viewer, mounted on what is almost certainly a donkey. The pond, well-established trees - elms and a huge old willow - their foliage rendered in Gainsborough's characteristically feathery, effortless drawing, and to the right a broken, rustic fence, complete the scene. The label formerly on the picture provides us with the title, and was sold to Archdeacon Smythe by the Fine Art Society, London, in 1956 before being presented by him to the National Art Gallery the following year. On a label formerly attached to the drawing, it is described as 'from the collection of Admiral Sommerville' [sic], probably Vice-Admiral Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville (1863-1936), whose interests included ethnography, archaeology and collecting.
See: Mary Kisler, 'Thomas Gainsborough...' in William McAloon (ed.) Art at Te Papa (Wellington; Te Papa Press, 2009), p. 39.
Dr Mark Stocker Curator, Historical International Art November 2018
Descriptive Medium: sepia and grey wash