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Thomas Gainsborough, 'A Suffolk Lane'

by Peter Moore, Research Curator at Gainsborough's House

Born and raised in Sudbury, Suffolk, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) spent his formative years surrounded by the kind of bucolic wooded landscape typified by this delicate pencil drawing. So influential was his early immersion in this environment that Gainsborough later told his close friend Philip Thicknesse that “during his Boy-hood…there was not a Picturesque clump of Trees, nor even a single Tree of beauty…nor hedge row, stone or post…for some miles round the place of his nativity, that he had not so perfectly in his mind’s eye, that had he known he could use a pencil, he could have perfectly delineated”. By the time of his death in 1788, the association between Gainsborough’s art and the landscape of his childhood was such that an obituary noted “Nature was his teacher, and the woods of Suffolk his academy”.

In 1740, at the age of thirteen, Gainsborough had clearly shown a great aptitude with pencil and paper. Having seen his son’s sketches his father reputedly declared that “Tom will be a genius” and sent him to London to train as an artist. Once settled in the capital, Gainsborough became closely acquainted with the group of artists and designers associated with the St. Martins Lane Academy, including Hubert-François Gravelot and Francis Hayman. Under the influence of these more experienced men he was able to supplement his innate technical ability as a draughtsman with the study of established modes of landscape. Both Gravelot and Hayman were involved in the production of illustrations for well-known collections of Fables published at the time, which introduced into British graphic art a new and highly conventional kind of imagery. The rural landscapes conjured by these men, which typically employed large trees as framing devices and routinely featured rustic inhabitants, clearly made an impression upon Gainsborough, as can be evidenced in ‘A Suffolk Lane’.  Access to a variety of prints and drawings from the continent, made possible through London’s thriving art trade, enabled Gainsborough to further refine his style, leading him to produce works that he later termed “imitations of little Dutch Landskips”.

When Gainsborough returned to his native Suffolk in 1749 these profoundly influential experiences allowed him to develop a new approach to depicting the local landscape, one which was fundamentally borne out of first-hand encounters and his personal vision of the world around him, but at the same time honed by his newfound knowledge of, and admiration for, past masters of the genre. The coexistent sense of fiction and reality, clarity and distortion, earthliness and ethereality – all present in ‘A Suffolk Lane’ – epitomises Gainsborough’s inimitable style. Produced following the artist’s return to his home county in 1749, and prior to his departure for pastures new in Bath in 1759, the drawing can be seen as a quintessential expression of the deep-rooted and emotionally charged connection that Gainsborough retained with his birthplace throughout his lifetime.