This is the earliest known self portrait in oil by Gainsborough, and the only known one of him with his family. He sits with his wife, Margaret, and the little rosy-cheeked girl is probably Mary, their short-lived first daughter. It is likely Gainsborough began it before Mary’s burial on 1 March 1748, when he was not yet 21, and his wife Margaret was a year or so younger.
Gainsborough portrays himself in a relaxed cross-legged pose, with one button of his waistcoat undone to suggest his elegant lack of concern with his appearance. He holds a piece of paper which may once have represented a drawing. The paint here and on the child has become transparent with age. Living in London at the time, Gainsborough had some evident difficulties with the landscape as well as with the proportions of the rather stiff-limbed figures. Quite a few changes were made during painting, particularly to Margaret’s pose and dress, and her left hand remains unfinished.
This is the earliest known self portrait in oil by Gainsborough, and the only known one of him with his family. The little rosy-cheeked girl holding a posy of flowers is probably Mary, Gainsborough’s first daughter. If this is so, the picture was probably painted in 1748, the year she died, when the family was living in Hatton Garden in London. It is likely Gainsborough began it before Mary’s burial on 1 March 1748, when he was not yet 21, and his wife Margaret was a year or so younger. Gainsborough and Margaret returned to Sudbury in Suffolk at the end of 1748 or early 1749.
Gainsborough portrays himself in a relaxed cross-legged pose, which is an adaptation of one used often by the portrait painter Francis Hayman (1708–1776), who probably taught Gainsborough at the St Martin’s Lane Academy in London. Gainsborough painted the landscape backgrounds in some of Hayman’s pictures in the later 1740s. The vague landscape in the background here is very different from the detailed Suffolk farmland seen in Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews, probably painted two years later, and it appears unfinished. Gainsborough shows one button of his waistcoat undone to suggest his elegant lack of concern with his appearance. The outer seam of his breeches was originally trimmed with yellow or gold braid. He holds a thinly painted piece of paper, which may have been intended to represent a drawing. The paint here and on the little girl has become transparent with age.
The whale-boned sides of Mrs Gainsborough’s dress ride up as she perches on the bank. The gown has holes over the hips through which she could slot her hands to manoeuvre her wide skirts, and her muslin apron is tacked inexpertly on to her bodice. Gainsborough reused his wife’s pose and dress for Mrs Gravenor in Mr and Mrs John Gravenor and their Daughters (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) and for other sitters.
Gainsborough never resolved some parts of the composition, such as his wife’s left hand, and they remain unfinished. Quite a few changes were made during painting, particularly to Mrs Gainsborough’s pose and dress – she was originally wearing a floppy hat which covered part of her forehead. Gainsborough began to paint a smaller, more close-fitting hat that was never completed.
Gainsborough’s wife, Margaret Burr, was the illegitimate daughter of Henry Somerset, 3rd Duke of Beaufort. The Duke settled an annuity of £200 on Margaret from the date of her marriage (15 July 1746) until her death, which greatly helped the family at the start of Gainsborough’s career. A sense of the value of the annuity can be gained by comparing it to Gainsborough’s professional earnings. In 1758, he charged 15 guineas for a half-length portrait and in 1760 he charged 60 guineas for a full-length, rising to 160 guineas in 1787, the last year of his life. Gainsborough’s letters leave little doubt that he loved his wife and that he felt very lucky to have married her.
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