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Gainsborough and the Theatre


Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was one of Britain’s foremost portrait and landscape artists, print maker and a founder of the Royal Academy. This exhibition concentrates on his relationships with the world of theatre, his celebrity friends and musicians


Mary Robinson (Perdita), actress and writer and George IV's first mistress, by Thomas Gainsborough. Photo: Neil Hennessy-Vass

Shown on the top floor of the charming Holburne Museum in Bath, the pictures are well lit and have been displayed as Gainsborough has intended them – at breast height. This minor detail is significant: I am 6ft tall and I found as walked around that each and every one of the paintings was looking me in the eye. A simple device to engage an audience has the effect of almost being with the subject.

The images, as with all Gainsborough’s work, were painted quickly and have visible brush strokes. The main sections of the bodies and faces afford a kind of soft focus lens but the eyes are always pin-sharp and realistic.

Curated by Hugh Belsey and Dr Susan Sloman, the works cover Gainsborough’s move to Bath in 1774 and then to London where he continued gaining clientele in the performance arts. Chris Stephens, director of the museum says “The exhibition focuses on Gainsborough and the theatre and life in 18th century. Music was played after stage plays and known as entertainments.” These snapshots of the great and the good of the time include Tenducci, the opera singer and actor, playwright and producer David Garrick. The pictures are very personal and include hands, sheet music etc that give them a sense of place and time.


Playwright and theatre producer, David Garrick. Photo: Neil Hennessy-Vass

Unlike other painters of the time he mostly worked alone and only had help from a nephew occasionally. The exhibition covers the time starting in 1768 and moving through the 15 years in Bath and then into the 1880’s in London.

A notable inclusion in the exhibition is of good friend, journalist and proprietor of The Morning Herald Revd Sir Henry Bate Dudley, a very powerful figure at the time that Gainsborough would feed half-truths to for publication.


The Rev. Sir Henry Bate Dudley. Photo: Neil Hennessy-Vass

Adjacent on the top floor is the Picture Gallery, which has a fine collection of 18th-century works including a large family portrait of the Byam family also by Gainsborough. The exhibition is on until mid January 2019 and definitely worth catching. Some of the works are from public collections but many of the paintings are held privately so will be hard to see again.

Gainsborough and the Theatre

Holburne Museum, Bath

Until 20 January 2019

For more information, CLICK HERE

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