This portrait of Mr Robert (1725–1806) and Mrs Frances Andrews (about 1732–1780) is the masterpiece of Gainsborough’s early career. It has been described as a ‘triple portrait’ – of Robert Andrews, his wife and his land.
Behind Mr and Mrs Andrews is a wide view looking south over the valley of the River Stour. Robert Andrews owned nearly 3000 acres and much of the land we see here belonged to him. Gainsborough has displayed his skills as a painter of convincingly changing weather and naturalistic scenery, which was still a novelty at this time.
The unpainted patch on Mrs Andrews’s lap may have been reserved to later paint a baby. Surrounded by the beauty of the woods and clouds of the Essex countryside, self-consciously posing beside their fertile harvest field and well-stocked pastures, Mr and Mrs Andrews live on in a moving evocation of themselves at home in their own landscape.
This portrait of Mr Robert (1725–1806) and Mrs Frances Andrews (about 1732–1780) is the masterpiece of Gainsborough’s early career. The picture remained with their descendants for over 200 years and was largely unknown until Mr George Andrews lent it to the Gainsborough Bicentenary exhibition at Ipswich in 1927. Since then, Mr and Mrs Andrews, an Essex squire and his wife, have become as unforgettable in English art as the Arnolfinis (portrayed by Jan van Eyck) are in European art.
Robert and Frances Andrews married in the parish church of All Saints, Sudbury, on 10 November 1748. Robert Andrews and Gainsborough had been fellow pupils at Sudbury Grammar School, their paths diverging when Gainsborough left in about 1742 to train as an artist in London. Robert Andrews went to Oxford University in 1744, but does not appear to have taken a degree. Most of his energies were to be devoted to farming and improving his land at Bulmer on the Essex side of the River Stour.
Frances Carter was brought up in Ballingdon, a hamlet in the parish of Bulmer. When Robert Andrews married her he was not quite marrying the girl next door, but probably the nearest marriageable girl of his own class. Gainsborough had already painted a portrait of Frances’s parents in about 1747 (Tate, London). Robert and Frances’s fathers each owned a half share of an estate outside Bulmer called Auberies. Probably the two fathers planned the marriage between their children, who may not have had much say in it. When Robert married Frances, aged 16, her father’s half share in Auberies was promised to him as a bequest. Frances’s father died two weeks after the wedding and sole possession of Auberies passed to Robert in 1750. It may have been this that prompted him to commission Gainsborough to paint this portrait, which has been described as a ‘triple’ portrait – of Robert Andrews, his wife and his land.
This is not a marriage portrait, for Gainsborough was probably still in London in 1748 and the couple are not dressed with the formality one would expect in such a picture. Robert Andrews is portrayed in his baggy shooting jacket, with twisted bags of powder and shot dangling from his pocket. He is suited to the landscape he inhabits, with his long-barrelled shotgun under his arm and his attentive gun dog at his feet. Mrs Andrews, still only 17 or 18, is less self-confident, sitting bolt upright in the palest of blue informal skirts and jacket, and a pair of backless mules more suited to pottering about the house. The bench on which she sits is probably imaginary, as it predates the invention of cast iron and would have had to be made from carved wood.
The painting follows the fashionable convention of the conversation piece, a portrait showing two or more people, often outdoors, that is usually small in scale. The emphasis on the landscape here allowed Gainsborough to display his skills as a painter of convincingly changing weather and naturalistic scenery, which was still a novelty at this time. The cloudy sky throws patches of light and shadow over the fields and meadows. The greyest areas of sky contain no blue pigment, only wood charcoal combined with white, which is similar to the grey sections of sky in Gainsborough’s portrait of Dr Ralph Schomberg. This technique for painting stormy skies is fairly common in Dutch seventeenth-century landscape painting, which influenced Gainsborough’s own approach.
Mr and Mrs Andrews pose for Gainsborough under an oak tree at the point where their house’s park meets their arable farmlands. Behind them is a wide view looking south over the valley of the Stour, which is depicted with more accuracy than any other landscape by Gainsborough. In the distance, to the left of Mr Andrews, is the square tower of Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford, and between the trees is All Saints, Sudbury, where the couple married. We glimpse the barns of home farm at Ballingdon Hall, where Frances grew up, and Cornard Wood which Gainsborough painted in 1748. By 1750, Robert Andrews owned nearly 3000 acres and much of the land we see here belonged to him. In the foreground a newly harvested cornfield has been added, suggesting the month is late July or August and that Robert Andrews follows the most recent methods for the productive husbandry of his land. The colours used to depict the sitters and landscape are also in tune: Mrs Andrews’s straw hat, the sky blue of her dress and her husband’s stone- and sage-coloured coat root them in their landscape as surely as the oak tree that spreads above them.
The unpainted patch in Mrs Andrew’s lap is a mystery. Some think Gainsborough intended to paint a cock pheasant there, shot by her husband. Others think the space was reserved to later paint a baby – their first child was not born until 1751, and the couple had nine children in all. A baby – especially a male heir – painted in Mrs Andrews’s lap would have demonstrated Robert’s productive husbandry at home as well as on his estates. We will probably never know why this part of the painting was not completed. Mrs Andrews died on 22 October 1780 aged 48. Robert Andrews remarried and lived until he was 80. They are buried side by side in the graveyard of St Andrew’s, Bulmer.
Surrounded by the beauty of the woods and clouds of the Essex countryside, self-consciously posing beside their fertile harvest field and well-stocked pastures, Mr and Mrs Andrews live on in a moving evocation of themselves at home in their own landscape.
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