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Gentleness

Catalogue entry

From:
Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).

Thomas Gainsborough, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (NG3812), probably about 1760–1, oil on canvas, 75.6 × 62.9 cm, The National Gallery, London, bought, 1923

The pet cat does not seem to be having much fun. Although hard to decipher because it is sketched in very lightly, it is clearly writhing and mewing, perhaps in protest at being forced to stay put and having its tail pulled. In contrast, the two girls could not show more loving gentleness and protectiveness towards each other. The younger one leans her forehead back against her sister’s cheek, while the older wraps her arms around her little sister, in a moving gesture of tenderness even as she helps control the cat. The technique itself is gentle; we can almost feel the way that the painter has caressed his brush in light feathery strokes over the canvas, using soft, ethereal touches of faded pink and gold rather than any harsh lines or tones, to draw out the figures from the background – as though these shy creatures might dissolve back into it at any moment.

It has been claimed that no other portrait of this date conveys so strongly the sense that it is painted from life.1 Its remarkable naturalism is partly explained because the sitters were the children of the painter. Gainsborough’s daughters, Mary and Margaret, look about ten and eight years old, respectively, which means he probably painted them soon after the family moved to Bath in late 1759.2 This was neither the first nor last time Gainsborough produced a striking double portrait of his two surviving children; in fact, he painted them six times between about 1756 and 1770.3 The first such work, also in the National Gallery, captures them a few years earlier, as little girls running hand in hand through dark woodland, attempting to catch a butterfly – perhaps a metaphor for the fleetingness of childhood or the fragility of life. The last in the group, a portrait of 1770, shows them as demure young women and aspiring artists, in their father’s studio, each holding a drawing portfolio.4 What a contrast the series makes to the commissioned portraits that Gainsborough produced of children and adolescents whom he did not know, where he conveyed youthful charm and social confidence in a more polished, controlled way.5

In relation to the images of his daughters, most of which are unfinished, the painter enjoyed a freedom to experiment, and there is a palpable tenderness between the siblings and between them and their father. As former National Gallery Director Michael Levey astutely observed, Gainsborough ‘always depicted [his daughters] in contact fondly with each other, always linked physically by clasped hands, an outstretched arm, or through a half‐protective embrace’.6 Hindsight adds poignancy to the vulnerability hinted at in The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat, in the way the sisters cling together against a backdrop of eddying storm clouds. Mary had increasing mental health issues from her teenage days onwards and her marriage was short‐lived, and Margaret was described in later years by a friend as ‘odd’. After their parents’ deaths (Gainsborough died in 1788, Mrs Gainsborough in 1798), the sisters made their home together for the rest of their lives.

The Southampton City Art Gallery’s painting by Lizzie Jones shows another pair of figures, in gentle, joyful embrace. In contrast to Gainsborough’s two girls, the adults in Jones’s work smile out confidently with a massive golden aura behind them. What is striking about the male figure is how tender he looks. Gentleness is often viewed today as a largely feminine characteristic, associated with the domestic sphere and motherhood. It is not an attribute generally promoted in the workplace, where leaders are encouraged to be ‘go getting’ and to fight for what they want. Many female leaders have traditionally shared the same view; Parisian fashion designer Coco Chanel (1883–1971), for example, is quoted as saying: ‘Gentleness doesn’t get work done unless you happen to be a hen laying eggs.’7 Yet certain great leaders in the modern age have defied the norm; two who achieved revolutionary change through advocating nonviolent resistance, satyagraha (a Sanskrit word), are Gandhi (1869–1948), with whom the term is particularly associated, and Martin Luther King Jr (1929–1968).

Other religious leaders and philosophers down the ages have likewise thought of gentleness as an innately powerful and effective tool for change. In Christianity, for instance, gentleness is regarded as a powerful resource for building community. As Saint Paul instructed an early Christian group: ‘As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another and forgiving one another.’8 Jesus, the exemplar for Christians of how to live a virtuous life, consistently acted gently and mercifully in relation to those he encountered, on one occasion comparing his actions to a mother hen gently gathering her chicks under her wings.9 Likewise, in Islam, gentleness is praised; as Muhammad explained: ‘Allah is gentle, and He loves gentleness. He rewards for gentleness what is not granted for harshness, and He does not reward anything else like it.’10 Numerous stories are recorded in which the Prophet was insulted by his enemies but did not return their curse. Rather, he showed forbearance and encouraged his companions to be gentle in their encounters with others. And in Hinduism, the concept of Mārdava, which can be translated as ‘gentleness’, is a fundamental concept and recognised as an assured channel towards attaining enlightenment. Gentleness, Hindus believe, should be shown to all things, whether living or inanimate, since how we interrelate with the world reveals our state of mind. Looking again at Gainsborough’s painting and bearing Mārdava in mind, we may delight in the sisters’ tenderness towards one another, and perhaps we might advocate that the cat deserves to be treated with equal gentleness too.

Jemma Craig

Lizzie Jones, Couple, 2005, acrylic and wax on canvas, 107.3 × 112.8 cm, Southampton City Art Gallery, no. 55/2006. Purchased with the assistance of the Orris Bequest

Lizzie Jones painted Couple at the Arches Studios in Southampton, where she has been based since they were established in 2005. To celebrate their opening, Jones’s work was acquired by Southampton City Art Gallery in 2006. Nearly two decades later, Jones continues in her practice and activism to explore themes of justice and peace, which accompany a deeply rooted drive to influence positive social change. As part of the collective Puppet Back Up, she and the other members are ‘activated’ by social justice and encourage playful development through puppetry, live performance, music and imagination.11 Jones’s current practice includes paintings, crafted objects and workshops; recent workshop themes have included environment, equality and wellbeing. Since 2002, she has painted commissions for local organisations, charities, community groups and events in private and public spaces. Her work connects people, networks and organisations throughout Southampton and the surrounding area.

Jones’s painting Couple evokes gentleness through a Black couple’s expressions and mutual compassion. The figures’ proximity indicates familiarity; they are tenderly pressed together while sharing an embrace. This is a moment of ease and being together. Smiles raise their cheeks and encourage us to smile too, as we share a palpable feeling of warmth, hope and recognition of shared humanity.

Much about this portrait is striking, even unusual. A broad curve of light is set against the unusual pentagonal‐shaped canvas that Jones created using a mitre saw. This shape subverts conventional expectations about the format of a portrait, which is usually oblong or square, occasionally round or oval. Instead of using oil paints, a traditional medium in portrait painting, in this work – Jones’s third painting of this couple – she experimented with scraping wax on the surface of the canvas. In some ways, her struggle with the medium parallels her grappling to portray what was most essential about the two sitters. Conveying intangible qualities in portraiture might not be straightforward, but ‘if the subject[s] of a picture could be stated in words there had been no need to paint it.’12 A captivating double portrait, Couple exudes integrity and warmth beyond words, plus a strong and authentic sense of character. Jones employs a warm, muted palette with layers of tonal shading built up of ochre, reddish‐brown and orange‐red undertones. A generous golden glow envelops the couple, resembling a halo or heavenly radiance, usually associated with holy figures or saints.

A photograph that Jones found inspired her to paint Couple. Being photographed marked a particular moment in the sitters’ lives, and Jones celebrates them in paint, with timeless clothing and an undefined setting. However, we can speculate about the unnamed couple’s lives. Jones discovered the photograph among others of people who experienced warfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in a Christian Aid magazine of the early 2000s. The charity tackles injustice, responding to humanitarian crises, and has maintained a presence in the DRC since the 1970s.13 During the 1994 Rwandan genocide and subsequent wars, many Congolese civilians were subjected to displacement, human rights violations, poverty and violence. In the photo, which dates after 1990, the woman’s left hand is missing, likely because of the violent conflict. It is probable that the couple faced hardship, yet they found happiness and love with each other. The artist chose to paint them as figures full of resilience and hope – and we are invited into this profound and gentle relationship.

In many religions, choosing to be gentle is considered praiseworthy and fruitful. When Jones first displayed Couple, at Southampton City Art Gallery, she accompanied it with two excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, one from the prophet Isaiah and the other from the prophet Micah. In addition to their original context, these texts offer wisdom to all, and they are crucial to understanding Jones’s painting:He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.14 Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.15

The first passage speaks about the transformation of tools of destruction into ploughshares for nurturing life, symbolising human innovation and the desire for peace instead of war. In the 2000s, Jones engaged with the ‘Ploughshares Network’, founded in the 1960s in the United States. It is a network of activists and the movement encourages non‐violent, personal, symbolic and actual disarmament actions, immobilising weaponry and posing questions about value and purpose through the idea that warfare is ‘no good for life’.16 At the time of painting Couple, Jones was also engaging with peace networks and actions at a UK weapons base, supporting symbolic acts of planting trees. Micah’s biblical text advocates for peace instead of war, denoted by the fig tree. In the New Testament, Jesus first met his disciple Philip underneath a fig tree.17 It is also the only tree specified as growing in the Garden of Eden, symbolising safety, wellbeing and growth. A mature tree suggests steadfast cultivation over many peaceful years. Bearing fruit represents sufficiency and sustainability afforded by safety, which is inextricably linked to peace.

Gentleness is strongly linked to strength and resilience, especially while facing challenging circumstances. Acting with gentleness is rewarding and necessary, especially as part of a journey towards peace‐building and compassion. Choosing to be gentle involves ongoing committed actions of self‐control, calmness and determination. Painter Lynette Yiadom‐Boakye has described tranquillity as ‘resistance, [and] serenity as a meaningful act’.18 Like gentleness, upholding such virtues is meaningful and active, and they should not be mistaken for passivity or weakness. Notably, the art historian Erwin Panofsky observed that Renaissance portrait painters sought to express ‘whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity’.19 In addition to going through life’s hardships ourselves, it is vital to listen empathetically to others. This can help us grow together as human beings. By contemplating the gentle tenderness in Couple, we may find a shared sense of humanity. By choosing to be gentle with ourselves and others, we can find ways to overcome adversity and end violence.

Lizzie Jones, Jemma Craig and some Quaker ‘Friends’ of Southampton

This text combines the artist Lizzie Jones’s perspectives on her 2005 painting, Couple, with reflections by some members of the Southampton Quaker community. A series of conversations with curator Jemma Craig, Lizzie Jones, and members of the Quaker group produced a wide variety of responses about what gentleness means, and insights about its importance for us all.

People call me Lizzie, Lizz, or Jones. I moved to Southampton in 2002 after completing a degree in Cardiff, in 1996. I still paint, based at the Arches Studio, where I painted Couple. I continue to deal with some of those themes today, and it’s interesting to return to this work as well, seventeen years later (!) as part of the Fruits of the Spirit project. These reflections stem from a conversation between me and Jemma Craig, Assistant Curator at Southampton City Art Gallery.

Couple began when I was working on another vine and fig tree artwork at the same time. Largely interested in peace and justice networks. Found photographs while skimming magazines. Painted another work like this, but I don’t do so today, either from photographs or particularly figurative works. I was drawn to the resolve these people seem to have, a sense of overcoming despite whatever has happened. It’s something that we are drawn to in people and hope to cultivate in ourselves.

The couple comes from the Congo, now known as the DRC, which is one of the deadliest places to live. Decades of war and warring factions. Again, it’s the living and surviving aspect, not all of us have lived through war. It’s those appealing qualities of keeping going and the dichotomy:

  • 1. How can transformation occur and disrupt cycles of war and warring found in both stories, and in the use and production of weaponry?
  • 2. How can we stop cycles when the violence has been done to you?

The second point is more a case of disrupting a cycle that is within or internal, which can be even more tricky. It’s a challenge to apply this to a broader context, and harder still when on the receiving end. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.20 Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.21

Other important ideas to clarify and connect the Isaiah and Micah prophecies to this work that are instrumental to its understanding include being unafraid and the quality of peace, plentiful and untroubled food production. The importance of being in nature is another reason we approached and made links with a central Southampton community garden group (Ropewalk Community Garden) and the ‘Homegrown SO14’ network in Southampton.

Additionally, in the context of this work, making a connection between the first vision of ‘swords [beaten] into ploughshares’ and its reversal is significant since machetes and hooks were turned back on civilians by factions/warring parties with the intention to maim in the Congolese area. The reality is weapon systems and intention to cause harm do exist, we must seek out and do what we can as they are not good for life or peace.

Below is a second set of reflections generated by members of the Southampton Quaker group during a discussion they had with Lizzie Jones and Jemma Craig:

‘What is gentleness? Joy and warmth. Courage. Warmth, compassion, generosity.’

‘A person may therefore not always be a “gentle person” but can be gentle when needed ‐ and that seems to be good to me.’

‘Companionship’

‘Free, content, effortless, playful’

‘Mediation, environment, ourselves, nurture in gardening and plants, sustainable sharing, hopeful for future.’

‘Grow seeds of gentle kindness’

‘Inspire communities and working together’

‘Peace inside of growth, sharing, not material things

‘Empathy’

‘Gentle to self, transform hurt, interrupt the cycle and heal inner trauma.’

‘Gentleness is calm, ease but there are layers.’

‘More like resilience, it is a strength to show compassion.’

‘Power of words, redefining gentleness on reflection.’

‘It is a Quaker concept that there is a steely edge to gentleness. Certainly, we believe in peace but must act and speak when needed.’

[It] became clear to me … gentleness implies vulnerability on the part of “the Other” … towards which gentleness is being shown. Gentleness is, therefore, a response to vulnerability.’

The group also spent time with Lizzie Jones’s painting Couple. Love, joy, warmth and care were all key themes addressed by the group. It was agreed that the couple seem in love, perhaps happy together for many years. Here are some of the things that the Quaker community shared about their experience of the painting:

‘Love and caring are the foundations for being gentle’

‘Act of gentleness generates warmth/feeling of safety’

‘Joy, light sunbeam, halo’

No suggestion of envy or antagonism, a loving look at the world’

‘Beaming wonderful, radiant, expresses character. He seems an exceptional person with inner qualities’

‘Loved and loving, at ease’

‘Palpable quality of humanity/compassion’

‘Survivors (hand)/conflict, strength, past trauma/recovery, hope and inspiration’

‘Trust, smiling’

In the discussions between Lizzie, Jemma and the Quakers, some keywords emerged in relation to ‘gentleness’ as a theme. They were:

CALM, SOFT, KIND, PEACEFUL, COMFORTABLE

RESPONSE, CHOICE, UNDERSTANDING

AUTHENTICITY, CONNECTION, REFLECTION, AFFECTION

SELF‐LOVE, AWARENESS, ENCOURAGING, EXPRESSION OF LOVE

NOT COARSE OR VIOLENT, NOT HARSH, MEAN OR BOISTEROUS, NOT AGGRESSIVE

LOVE, STRENGTH

Notes

1. Egerton 1998, p. 100. (Back to text.)

2. Ibid., p. 98. (Back to text.)

3. Gainsborough had a first‐born but short‐lived daughter, Mary (buried 1748); see Egerton 1998, p. 66. (Back to text.)

4. Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters, c.1763–4 (Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum). (Back to text.)

5. For instance, see Gainsborough’s depiction of Robert and Susannah Charleton, c.1772 (Richmond, Virginia, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph C. and Wilkins C. Williams Collection), Miss Elizabeth Haverfield, early 1780s (London, Wallace Collection) and Francis Nicholls, ‘The Pink Boy’, 1782 (Waddesdon Manor, National Trust, Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957). (Back to text.)

6. Levey 1975, p. 1. (Back to text.)

8. NRSV 1989, Colossians 3:12–13. (Back to text.)

9. NRSV 1989, John 7:53–8:11 and Matthew 23:37–9. (Back to text.)

10. Sunan Ibn Majah 3688, ‘Gentleness’, https://sunnah.com/ibnmajah:3688 (Back to text.)

12. Sickert 1910, pp. 300–1. (Back to text.)

14. NIV 1989, Isaiah 2:4. As the version of the Bible Jones used in the exhibition was the New International Version, the translation has been retained here. (Back to text.)

15. NIV 1989, Micah 4:4. (Back to text.)

16. Lizzie Jones, in ‘Gentleness’ session at Southampton City Art Gallery, May 2022. (Back to text.)

17. NIV 1989, John 1:48. (Back to text.)

18. Schlieker in Maidment et al. 2020, p. 23. (Back to text.)

19. Erwin Panofsky quoted in West 2004, p. 4. (Back to text.)

20. NRSV 1989, Isaiah 2:4. (Back to text.)

21. NRSV 1989, Micah 4:4. (Back to text.)

List of references cited

  • Christian Aid n.d.,
    Christian Aid, ‘Christian Aid in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’, https://www.christianaid.org.uk/our‐work/where‐we‐work/democratic‐republic‐congo, accessed 4 July 2022
  • Egerton 1998
    Egerton, Judy, National Gallery Catalogues: The British School, London 1998
  • Jones n.d.
    Jones, Lizzie, ‘Puppet Back Up’, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/PuppetBackUp, accessed 4 July 2022
  • Levey 1975
    Levey, Michael, The Painter’s Daughter chasing a Butterfly: National Gallery Painting in Focus (exh. cat. National Gallery, London) London 1975
  • Maidment et al. 2020
    Maidment, I., A. Schlieker, E. Alexander, L. Yiadom‐Boakye, Lynette Yiadom‐Boakye, eds, Fly in League with the Night (exh. cat. Tate Britain, London), London 2020
  • NIV 1989
    The Holy Bible, New International Version, Grand Rapids 1989
  • NRSV 1989
    The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, London 1989
  • Reed 2016
    Reed, Mariel, ‘25 Coco Chanel Quotes to Live By’, Marie Claire, 4 October 2016, https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/coco‐chanel‐s‐25‐snappiest‐quotes‐54026, accessed 12 June 2022
  • Sickert 1910
    Sickert, Walter Richard, ‘The Language of Art’, The New Age, 28 July 1910, pp. 300–1
  • West 2004
    West, Shearer, Portraiture, Oxford 2004

About this catalogue

This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.

The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.

The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.

Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.

About the authors

Susanna Avery‐Quash

Dr Susanna Avery‐Quash is Senior Research Curator (History of Collecting) at the National Gallery, in charge of pre‐1900 objects in its History Collection, and responsible for activities associated with its research strands, ‘Art and Religion’, ‘Buying, Collecting and Display’, its Women and the Arts Forum, and its Legacies of British Slave Ownership research project, including managing research partnerships, organising conferences and supervising graduate students. She recently published ‘Reanimating sacred art for a secular age: Art and religion at the National Gallery, London’, in Timothy Verdon and Rita Filardi, eds, Museology and Values: Human Dignity in the Twenty‐First Century, Turnhout, 2020.

Jemma Craig

Jemma Craig is Assistant Curator of Art at Southampton City Art Gallery, a position which includes caring for and developing collaborative projects with the art collection as well as supporting Southampton’s Artlease scheme and the loans programme. As a former National Gallery Curatorial Trainee (2019–21), Jemma led a project that built on Southampton City Art Gallery’s historic but little‐known relationship with the National Gallery and uncovered further links beyond acquisitions alone. Jemma co‐curated with Susanna Avery‐Quash the partnership exhibition Creating a National Collection (2021), which brought together paintings from both collections as pairings, and was supported by a major publication.

Lizzie Jones

Lizzie Jones has been a resident artist at the Arches Studios, Southampton, for seventeen years. She has undertaken an apprenticeship at the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont, which led to her setting up ‘Puppet Back Up’, which engages with issues such as climate justice, people migration and resistance to the weapons trade, through large puppets on the pavement and community involvement. Jones has painted banners and murals for grassroots campaigns and projects, site‐specific paintings and commissions and exhibited across the south of England. Her work is influenced by a spirituality centring on compassion. She also works as a gardener.

The Quaker ‘Friends’ of Southampton

There have been Quakers in Southampton since the 1650s. The current Meeting house in Ordnance Road was built in 1884 and there are now just under 100 Quaker members and attendees in Southampton. They meet every Sunday at 10.45 a.m. There is also a Quaker burial ground on The Avenue, Southampton, which was established in 1662.

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Avery‐Quash, Susanna, Jemma Craig, Lizzie Jones, Jemma Craig and Quaker ‘Friends’ of Southampton. "8: Gentleness". Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. Version 0, January 1, 0001. https://data.ng-london.org.uk/n/a.
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