Five things to know about Young Gainsborough

Gridded-up preparatory drawing for Gainsborough's landscape painting Cornard Wood
Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), Study for 'Cornard Wood', c.1748. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2022.

Young Gainsborough: Rediscovered Landscape Drawings is our latest Print Gallery exhibition. It features 25 early landscape drawings by the English artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) alongside a selection of his oil paintings and works by some of the Dutch artists who influenced him.

Read on to discover five interesting facts about the exhibition before you visit.

#1 – These drawings were originally thought to be by Edwin Landseer.

Queen Victoria purchased the 25 drawings, in 1874, from Sir Edwin Landseer's (1802–1873) studio after his death, and for many years they were believed to be by Landseer himself.

It was only recently that Thomas Gainsborough was confirmed as being the artist behind the drawings. Art historian Lindsay Stainton discovered that one of the sheets is a study for Gainsborough’s best-known landscape painting, Cornard Wood. You can see the Cornard Wood study (above) and oil painting (below) in this exhibition.

An oil painting of a wooded scene. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk. © The National Gallery, London.

#2 – Gainsborough sometimes made models of landscapes in his studio.

Young artists were encouraged to draw from life to build up their observational skills, and Gainsborough would make detailed drawings while out walking in the countryside in his native Suffolk. These drawings reveal his fascination with landscape and the joy he found in capturing natural detail.

However, he also made drawings in his studio, experimenting with ideas for paintings and creating perfectly balanced compositions. Although drawn from his imagination, these studio drawings are based on his deep knowledge of the landscape.

According to contemporary sources, he even made mini-landscape models in his studio, using household items, and made drawings from them.

"He would place cork or coal for his foregrounds, and set up distant woods of broccoli…"
W. H. Pyne, Somerset House Gazette, 6, 1824

Landscape drawing by Gainsborough with brown blotch of linseed oil along lefthand side of sheet. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Landscape with a road and cottage, c.1748–50. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2022.

#3 – Paint drips, oil spills and grid lines are visible on some of the drawings.

Gainsborough made his drawings for different purposes. Some he made for their own sake, some he used as reference or working drawings, and some he made with a particular finished painting in mind.

In the exhibition, you'll see drips of white paint and linseed-oil stains (above) on some sheets – clues that these were working drawings, lying around Gainsborough's studio, where an elbow could easily knock into and spill the artist's materials.

You'll also see sheets with grids of lines over the drawings, such as the study for Cornard Wood. Artists often used this method to transfer a drawn composition to a larger canvas by copying the composition square by square.

A drawing of a landscape with the more finished and detailed tree at centre and sketchy trees and landscape surrounding it. Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), Trees beside a descending path, c.1746–1748. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2022.

#4 - See if you can spot some tree 'portraits' in the exhibition.

Gainsborough admired landscape paintings by seventeenth-century Dutch artists including Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9?–1682). Ruisdael often made one element the focus of his landscape, and his influence can be seen in some of Gainsborough's drawings such as Trees beside a descending path, c.1746–48 (above). Here, Gainsborough drew a ‘portrait’ of a particular tree while its roughly sketched in companions simply give context.

As a young man, Gainsborough saw paintings by seventeenth-century Dutch masters on display in the London salerooms, and his early enthusiasm for Dutch landscape art remained with him. At the time of his death he owned numerous prints and drawings by Dutch landscape painters.

#5 – Gainsborough eventually turned his focus to portraiture.

Though Gainsborough's true passion lay in landscape, he did not sell many of his early landscape drawings and paintings. He needed to make a living, and the market for portraits was stronger than for contemporary English landscape paintings. So, the artist turned his focus to portraiture. Though he went on to become one of the most famous English portrait painters, he remembered his early landscapes with nostalgia. In later life he wrote: 

‘I'm sick of Portraits and wish very much to ... walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease.’


Young Gainsborough: Rediscovered Landscape Drawings continues in the Print Gallery until 9 June. Admission is free.

This exhibition has been organised in collaboration with Royal Collection Trust, York Museums Trust, National Gallery of Ireland and Nottingham Castle.

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