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Study of a lady, possibly for The Richmond Water-Walk

  • GBR
  • 2013-12-04
About the object
In this exceptionally rare late work, dating from circa 1785, a lady walks gracefully through a river landscape populated by trees and shrubs. Gainsborough presents a sumptuous vision of a highly fashionable young woman, emblematic of her times. Her elaborate dress, with its swathes of silk, together with the coquettish tilt of her head beneath a ribboned hat, the lightness of the springs of her curls and the tactile fur of her hand-muff, creates a seductive and enticing image of feminine charm and beauty.

The drawing forms part of a celebrated group of five full-length studies, each depicting beautifully dressed woman in a rural setting. Two of these drawings are in the British Museum, London (see figs. 1 & 2) , one is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (see fig. 3), while the fourth is now in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles (see fig. 4), having been sold at Christie’s, London, in 1991 for £619,000.1 The present work therefore remains the only drawing of the group still in private hands.

Dr. John Hayes described this group as ‘amongst the most brilliant and ravishing of Gainsborough’s late drawings.’2 If however, their artistic merit is at once obvious, their intended purpose has been much debated. One possibility is that Gainsborough created them as independent works, to be referred to when required.  Certainly during the 1780s he worked on a number of portraits principally of young woman in which the figures move gently about a romantic woodland setting. Indeed his Portrait of Sophia, Lady Sheffield shows the sitter striking a comparable pose to the figure in one of the drawings in the British Museum.3 At one time all five of the drawings were identified as depicting the great beauty, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806). However, although this tradition goes back to the 1830s and Gainsborough of course painted the Duchess on several occasions throughout the 1780s, the evidence remains questionable.

These drawings have also been connected with two compositions by Gainsborough. An inscription on the reverse of the second British Museum drawing,4 written by Gainsborough’s close friend William Pearce, indicates a connection with The Mall, a major canvas which depicts gentile persons walking in St. James Park.5 Pearce wrote that his drawing was a ‘study for a painting commissioned by King George III who had expressed a wish to have a picture representing that part of St. James’ Park which is overlooked by the garden of the Palace – the assemblage being there, for five or six seasons, as high dressed and fashionable as Ranelagh… while sketching one morning in the Park for this picture [Gainsborough] was much struck by what he called ‘the fascinating leer’ of the Lady who is the subject of the drawing. He never knew her name, but… observing that he was sketching, she walked to and fro two or three times, evidently to allow him to make a likeness.’6

Dr. Hayes however cast doubt over the accuracy of Pearce’s note. He conceded that Gainsborough had employed similar poses for the principal figures of The Mall, but he also noted that that picture had never been associated with George III. Furthermore The Mall was painted in the winter of 1783, when the fashion of the day was quite different from that of 1785. Certainly the wide-brimmed ‘picture’ hat, which is such a prominent feature of all five drawings had, by that date, not taken the London fashion world by storm.

Dr. Hayes did suggest an alternative theory. He connected the group of drawings with a painting that was mentioned in the Morning Herald on the 20th October 1785. Sir Henry Bate-Dudley (1745-1824 ) wrote that ‘Gainsborough is to be employed…. on a companion to his beautiful Watteau-like picture of the Park-Scene [The Mall]: the landscape [is to be] Richmond Water-walk or Windsor – the figures all portraits.7 Sadly it seems that this painting was never completed, but Hayes felt that it was quite possible that Gainsborough may have begun working on ideas for the project.

Without the survival of a preparatory compositional drawing for the work, it is unlikely that scholars will be able to unravel the mysteries of these drawings. None-the-less this work, and its companions, occupy a highly important place within Gainsborough’s oeuvre.  Dr. Hayes and Lindsey Stainton perhaps encapsulated their true significance when they explained that ‘the drawings are characterized by an extraordinary sense of movement, both on the part of the figures and of the landscape. The abandon of hair and costume is taken up in the almost dizzy rhythms of the conventions for depicting foliage and tree trucks, with which the figures are thus so closely integrated, and the astonishingly vigorous highlights in white chalk, while modelling the dresses with a marvellous plasticity unusual in Gainsborough, also display a spirited independent life of their own, echoing and hinting at, rather than delineating form. Nevertheless, beneath the costumes which billow out so splendidly behind them, the figures possess a remarkable weight and substance.’8 1.  London, Christie’s, 9 July 1991, lot 90
2.  J. Hayes, 'Gainsborough's Richmond Water-walk', The Burlington Magazine, January 1969, p. 28
3.  British Museum, 1897-4-10-20
4.  J. Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, London 1970, no. 59
5.  The Frick Collection, New York;
6.  J. Hayes and Lindsey Stainton, Gainsborough Drawings, Washington 1983, p. 180
7.  J. Hayes, 'Gainsborough's Richmond Water-walk', The Burlington Magazine, January 1969, p. 31
8.  J. Hayes and Lindsey Stainton, Gainsborough Drawings, Washington 1983, p. 13

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* Note that the price doesn’t correlate with today’s value, but only relates to the actual end price at the time of the purchase.