Gainsborough and Music

Mrs Philip Thicknesse (Ann Ford) - Painted 1759-60 (Cincinatti Art Museum, Ohio)

Mrs Brinsley Sheridan (Elizabeth Linley) - Painted 1785-7 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Carl Friedrich Abel (1777) - Huntington Library Art Collections, San Marino, Ca.

Music and Painting

The links between music and painting, between musicians and artists are many and varied. Artists across the ages have depicted musical instruments and their performance on them, often providing valuable iconographic evidence as to their construction or the method by which they were played. In some cases musicians and artists have shown a keen interest in the other’s art, especially in the nineteenth century, when a painter like Delacroix, himself a gifted pianist and violinist, seemed as happy to write about music as he did his own discipline.

In this respect, Delacroix’s closest artistic ancestor was clearly the great eighteenth-century English painter Thomas Gainsborough, a man of whom his long-standing friend, the English composer and polemicist William Jackson said, “There were times when music seemed to be Gainsborough’s employment and painting his diversion”. Not only did the painter number many musicians among his friends, but he is also said to have preferred their company to that of his fellow artists. He was a viola da gamba player, although by Jackson’s account not a particularly distinguished one, he attempted to learn the lute, the violin, and the flute, and, despite not caring for the instrument, is known to have purchased a harpsichord from Burkat Shudi the elder, the eminent builder who also numbered among the artist’s friends. Most importantly of all from the point of view of posterity, some of his most memorable portraits immortalized the features of such distinguished London-based musicians of the day as his intimate friends and fellow carousers Carl Friedrich Abel, Johann Christian Bach, Felice Giardini, and the oboist and composer Johann Christian Fischer (who became Gainsborough’s son-in-law), not to mention the beautiful Linley sisters, Elizabeth Ann and Mary, ill-fated members of an ill-starred family.

Life and Character

Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk in May 1727. His birth date is not known, but is likely to have been a few days before his baptism on 14 May. Early signs of talent as a landscape painter led his father, a shroud-maker, to send the boy to London at some time around his thirteenth birthday. There he became a pupil of the French engraver Hubert Gravelot, in whose studio he not only came under the influence of Gravelot’s French rococo style, but also that of the English painter Francis Hayman. Sometime around 1743 or 1744 Gainsborough established his own studio in Hatton Gardens, Clerkenwell, but five years later he returned to Sudbury, having in the meantime married Margaret Burr, a natural daughter of the Duke of Beaufort.

In 1752 the family, which now included two daughters, Mary and Margaret, moved again, on this occasion only as far as Ipswich, the largest town in Suffolk. By this time Gainsborough had already established some reputation as both a portrait and landscape painter, his work during this period including Mr and Mrs Andrews (c.1748-1750), one of the quintessential English paintings of the eighteenth century. It was doubtless such progress in his career that encouraged Gainsborough to move to the potentially more lucrative surroundings of the fashionable spa town of Bath, where he settled in 1759. In Bath, the painter not only rapidly built up a wealthy clientele of sitters, but also started to move in musical and theatrical circles, becoming friendly with the great actor David Garrick and the gifted Linley family. Three years after the move to Bath, Gainsborough’s career was disrupted by serious illness, but in 1768 he was invited to become a founder member of the newly established Royal Academy, of which his great rival Joshua Reynolds had been elected President.

Gainsborough’s move to London in 1774 has been the subject of some debate among scholars, it seemingly having no rational motivation. But it appears possible that he was starting to experience a decline in business among the fickle leaders of fashion who thronged Bath during the “season”. Whatever the reason, Gainsborough was now a wealthy man – his annual income by this time has been estimated to have been in excess of 20,000 guineas, a huge sum – and he was able to establish a new home in fashionable Pall Mall, at the same time developing further his circle of musical and other friends. The 1780s witnessed both continued acclaim and disappointment, with the artist’s virtual adoption as unofficial painter to the royal family marred by his disappointment at not being granted the official position of Principal Painter, a post that went to Reynolds on the death in 1784 of the incumbent, Allan Ramsey. In the same year he had the second of two quarrels with the Royal Academy over the hanging of his pictures, as a consequence starting a series of annual exhibitions of his own. In the spring of 1788, Gainsborough first mentions what turned out to be a cancerous growth on his neck. He died on 2 August, but not before a touching reconciliation with his old rival Reynolds, who was one of the pallbearers at his funeral at Kew on the outskirts of London.

The image of Gainsborough that emerges from his surviving letters and the anecdotes related by his friends is of an unusually attractive figure, if one at times prone to the excesses of conviviality fashionable in Georgian England. There are contradictions, too. Generous to a fault, he was also a man whose strong religious convictions (he refused to work on Sundays) did not preclude him from indulging in adulterous relationships. The letters, which reveal much about the man, are fluently written, punctuated by dashes as the writer moves easily from one topic to another. They are also extremely entertaining. Regrettably, after his death a rather more censorious age found many of them licentious, as a result of which a number were apparently destroyed. Some small flavour of Gainsborough’s writing, and his relationship with some of his musician friends, can be gauged from an apologetic letter he wrote to an aristocratic friend in London in May 1772, explaining why he had been unable to call:

I was hugging myself as I pass’d through Harley street, that as I had not met one Fidler or Hautboy [oboe] Man, I should doubtless have leisure to wait upon you again, but behold, not three doors from yours, I ran my head plump into Abel’s fat Guts. He promised I should hear a man blow half-notes upon the French [horn] if I would dine with Him; I found Fisher [recte Fischer], Bach & Duport [the French cellist Jean Pierre Duport], all ready to make a finish of me for the day I had to stay in Town, so that not a Friend, a Picture, or anything I liked could I enjoy – except only a little Venus rising from the sea in my way to my Lodgings…


The unflattering reference to Abel reminds us that the composer was portly, although Gainsborough’s superb portrait of him goes some way to disguising the fact. The “little Venus” was a prostitute, the allusion being to the title of a painting currently being exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition. The protests are undoubtedly somewhat ingenuous, since Gainsborough was known to have a particular leaning toward the company of musicians. His daughter Margaret recorded that her father was “much led into the company of musicians, with whom he often exceeded the bounds of intemperance… being occasionally unable to work for a week afterwards.”

As with his personal letters, the receipt of one of which was considered by one of his friends to contain so much of Gainsborough that there was “never the heart to burn it”, so with Gainsborough’s lively conversation, which made his company much sought after. “His favourite subjects”, noted one of his circle, “were music and painting; which he treated in a manner peculiarly his own. The common topics, or any of a superior cast, he thoroughly hated, and always interrupted by some stroke of wit and humour.”

The painter’s relationship with his clients was unusual in an era when clients often expected the servility of those in the arts world. Like his great contemporary Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough did not considered himself subservient in his dealings with the aristocracy who sought his services. Rather, his manner with them with easy and informal, an attitude he adopted even with the royal family. He once claimed that he ‘had talked bawdy with the king, and morality with the Prince of Wales’, a neat piece of wit understood only by recalling that while George III was a man of impeccable morals, those of his eldest son were anything but impeccable. 

Gainsborough the Artist Musician and His Musical Friends

For much of our knowledge of Gainsborough’s relationship with music and musicians we are dependent on Gainsborough’s own correspondence and William Jackson, in particular with Jackson’s The Four Ages, published in 1798, which includes a section on the “Character of Gainsborough”. The two men enjoyed a friendship lasting some years, during which they corresponded frequently, often exchanging tips and seeking advice on the other’s art (Jackson at one time even spoke of giving up music for painting), passages that provide some of the most fascinating aspects of the correspondence. Later the friendship cooled, Jackson writing to a mutual friend in 1778: “My old Friendship for Gainsborough I am afraid has suffered some abatement – his Oddities will at last get the better of his Good Qualities.” The “oddities” to which Jackson refers undoubtedly concern what the sober-minded writer would have regarded as Gainsborough’s feckless way of life. It is within this context that Jackson’s unkind assessment of Gainsborough’s musical talents must be placed, many writers having been perhaps too willing to take at face value his undoubtedly biased reportage.

Gainsborough’s interest in music can be dated from at least the 1750s. During that decade he was a member of the Ipswich Music Society, being friendly with the composer and organist Joseph Gibbs, whose portrait he painted. In a letter to the actor David Garrick, he recalled an amusing event that took place at an Ipswich concert while he was acting as steward. Having asked the amateur singer if he could sing a new song at sight, he was answered in the affirmative. However, when it came to the concert silence followed the orchestral introduction. Gainsborough was on his feet, “Damn you! Why don’t you sing? Did you not tell me you could sing at sight?” “Yes, please your honour, I did say I could sing at sight, but not first sight.” Coincidentally, the music historian Charles Burney related a near-identical story about Handel and one of his singers.

The leader of that concert was none other than Felice Giardini, whose violin playing had created a sensation following his arrival in England in 1750. Later, in Bath, Giardini and Gainsborough become intimate friends, the painter often speaking of the Italian violinist’s virtuosity in glowing terms. He recalled in a letter how Giardini had bought a small violin nobody wanted because of its poor tone. “In his Hands”, said Gainsborough, “it produced the finest Music in the World”. The painter found an “ease and gentility” in Giardini’s playing that he compared with the oratory of one of the most famous legal figures of the day. Such ease coupled with a certain restrained exuberance also informed Gainsborough’s own work. He had an intense dislike of extremes of colour and loud music, advising Garrick at a time when theatrical design had become garish to “spare the poor abused Colors, till the Eye rest & recovers – Keep up your Music by supplying the place of Noise, by more Sound, more Harmony & more Tune; and split that curs’d Fife & Drum”.

The subtlety of the rich russets and shimmering golds and silvers that feature in so many of Gainsborough’s paintings testify to his belief that both music and painting demanded a “modest truth”, a simplicity that nevertheless demanded sensitive enhancement. There must also be in music a “Variety of lively touches and surprizing Effects to make the Heart dance, or else they be better in a Church – so in Portrait Painting there must be a Lustre and finishing to bring it up to individual Life.” This love of moderation seasoned with understated virtuosity extended to Gainsborough’s distaste for the unnatural in portrait painting, the adoption of outlandish dress or themes. He reserved scorn for what he called “the ridiculous use of fancied Dress in Portraits”, instead aiming at a naturalness that led his friend and first biographer Philip Thicknesse to the perceptive verdict that “It was possible to judge a Gainsborough portrait as if it were a living person.” In holding such views and putting them into practice in his own work, Gainsborough proves himself a child of his time, a man whose appreciation of the elegant ease of the unpretentious galant style of his friends Abel and Johann Christian Bach accords entirely with his own artistic philosophy.

And what of Gainsborough’s own musical attainments? If we are to go by the testimony of Jackson’s Four Ages they were very modest, motivated more by a desire to possess the instruments on which his friends made such glorious sounds than by ability to emulate them. Speaking of Abel’s viola da gamba, Jackson tells us sarcastically that once having purchased it, Gainsborough’s house “resounded with melodious thirds and fifths… Many an Adagio and many a Minuet were begun, but none completed – this was wonderful, as it was Abel’s own instrument, and therefore ought to have produced Abel’s own music!” Yet, as we have seen, Jackson’s views were by this time coloured and must therefore be balanced by the observations of another of Gainsborough’s close friends, Henry Bate Dudley. It was Dudley who noted: “His performance on the Viol de Gamba was, in some movements, equal to the touch of Abel. He always plays to the feelings”, while other friends recall him accompanying “a slow movement of the harpsichord both on the fiddle and the flute, with taste and feeling.”  Whatever the truth - and one suspects it probably lies somewhere between extremes - Gainsborough’s devotion to music was unquestionable, perhaps best articulated in his most frequently-quoted observation relating to music, included in a letter to Jackson written from Bath around 1770. The artist, weary at the end of a season of painting portraits wrote: “I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gam [sic] and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips [landscapes] and enjoy the Fag End of life in quietness and ease.” The sentence is revealing, underlining not only Gainsborough’s genuine love of the gamba, but also the as yet largely unfulfilled dream of painting landscapes.

At the end of that same letter, Gainsborough reveals that he owns no fewer than five viols, three by the Jaye family, London makers over a period of some two centuries, and two by the eminent seventeenth/eighteenth-century maker Barak Norman. The painter’s acquisitive desire for instruments was by any standards remarkable, leading some authorities to the conclusion that it was based as much on appreciation of their aesthetic qualities as to a desire to master them personally. The theory is supported by the number of instruments that appear even in Gainsborough’s non-musical portraits, yet there can be little doubt that he always harboured a wish to produce sounds from them. Two lively anecdotes underline the point. Johann Christian Bach is said to have come across Gainsborough attempting to play a bassoon. “Pote [put] it away, man; pote it away! Do you want to burst yourself, like the frog in the fable?” Despite Bach’s continued protests, Gainsborough would have none of it, retorting, “Damn it, you have no ear, man,” before resuming his playing, on which Bach stopped his ears.

The seconds relates to a visit to Rudolf Straube, a German émigré who had sung under J. S. Bach at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, and was now one of the last eighteenth-century lutenists. Gainsborough had determined on buying Straube’s lute, but found the German unwilling to sell. Eventually they settled on a figure of 10 guineas, but the artist had scarcely descended from Straube’s attic quarters before he returned: “What good is your lute without your book of music?” More haggling ensued, with Gainsborough eventually persuading the reluctant lutenist to part with his unpublished music book for a further 10 guineas. Triumphant, Gainsborough left, but again was soon back, demanding that Straube come immediately with him to give him his first lesson. When the poor German protested that he was not dressed to go out, Gainsborough retorted “Damn your wig! your cap and beard become you! do you think if Vandyke was to paint you he’d let you be shaved?” This delightful story, which exists in two different versions, suggests that Gainsborough had offered to paint Straube’s portrait if he came with him, but there is no evidence that he did, or indeed as to whether the lutenist ever gave Gainsborough tuition.

The Musical Portraits

During the course of his career as a portraitist, Gainsborough painted many pictures of musicians. I have chosen to focus on just four examples that seem to me particularly outstanding. This, regrettably, means excluding the splendid half-length portrait of Johann Christian Bach painted in mid-1770s at the request of Padre Martini, the famous Bologna teacher and theorist whose tuition and friendship Bach had enjoyed during his early years in Milan.

Mention has already been made of the startlingly original portrait of Ann Ford, completed in 1760, and today housed in the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio. Its subject was an amateur musician whose pretensions to becoming professional had been constantly thwarted by her father, who confined her to performing in private houses. Twice he had her arrested after she arranged public concerts, but the proud determination that Gainsborough so memorably catches in Ann’s features eventually won through and she made her debut in the year in which her portrait was painted. The picture includes two of the instruments Ann Ford played, an English guitar, almost exclusively associated with women performers, and a viola da gamba, hung on the wall with its bow, removed from its owner, inactive. For Richard Leppart, this represents a symbol of her father’s repression. The viola da gamba was considered to be the preserve of men, so Ford’s announcement that she would play a solo on it in public represented a radical step. Her other instrument was the musical glasses, for which she wrote a tutor, and she was also blessed with a fine singing voice. Ironically, her professional career was short-lived; when she married Philip Thicknesse in 1762, her new husband made her give up performing in public.

Gainsborough’s portrait is exceptional on several counts, not least for a remarkable level of overt virtuosity that he rarely attempted in maturity. The silver of Ann’s extraordinarily elaborate dress shimmers with sensuality, and is painted with an attention to detail that clearly owes a debt to Gainsborough’s artistic hero, Van Dyck. But what really makes the picture so surprising, even shocking, is the pose of the sitter. For a woman to be represented sitting so informally, one leg crossed above the knee, was not only risky but a breach of contemporary etiquette. Is this, perhaps, a statement about this beautiful, strong-minded woman’s independence, a display of defiant masculinity only partially contradicted by her obvious feminine sexuality?  Certainly, the portrait was considered daring and controversial, one observer remarking of it, “I should be very sorry to have anyone I loved set forth in such a manner.”

Ann Ford is linked to Elizabeth Linley insofar as she was another singer forced by marriage to abandon a professional career, in the case of Elizabeth one that showed every promise of being a glittering one. Gainsborough became friendly with the prodigiously gifted Linley family in Bath, and subsequently painted a number of portraits of them. The father, Thomas Linley the elder was a proficient musician who was for many years the director of concerts and oratorios in the fashionable spa city of Bath. His elder son, also Thomas (b. 1756), was one of the most precocious talents in the history of English music. Tragically, his huge promise remained unfulfilled. He had barely reached his twenty-second birthday before being drowned in a boating accident, leaving behind a small legacy of works that suggest Linley would have become one of England’s outstanding composers. 

Both Elizabeth (b. 1754) and Mary (b. 1758) also showed youthful talent. The exquisite Gainsborough portrait of them painted around 1772 (now in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London) captures ideally the tranquil, almost spiritual beauty for which the two sisters were renowned. But Elizabeth was far from being a demure young lady with a pure soprano voice whose sweetness captivated all who heard it. At precisely the time Gainsborough was completing his portrait of the sisters, Elizabeth became involved in a national scandal when she eloped with the young playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan to escape the unwelcome attentions of a rake. In a letter to a friend, Gainsborough expressed his sympathy for both the family and Sheridan, although he clearly felt that Elizabeth’s father had been somewhat lax in exercising his parental duty. In 1773 Elizabeth and Sheridan were married, her musical talents henceforth to be displayed only in private salons.

After he moved to London, Gainsborough remained friendly with the Sheridans, making a permanent loan of the portrait of Elizabeth and Mary to the household. Around 1775, he returned to the subject of Elizabeth, whose charms were undoubtedly not lost on the artist, to execute a more formal portrait, an oval that shows she had lost none of her beauty. Most remarkable of all, however, is the last portrait Gainsborough painted of Elizabeth. Completed in 1786 or 1787, just six years before her early death at the age of thirty-seven (Mary died even younger, in 1787), it is one of Gainsborough’s most strikingly original portraits. Whereas the portrait of the sisters had been set in some kind of idealized arbour, with Mary seated on a flowery bank, here the setting and portrayal of Elizabeth have a wild, almost romantic feel to them, going beyond the idea of “sensibility”. This is no portrait of a sensitive, pale beauty with the voice of an angel, but a picture of a passionate woman, sitting on a stone at one with nature as the wind blows through her hair and lightly plays with the chiffon scarf around her neck. Here, as Gainsborough biographer Stephen Butler aptly puts it, is Elizabeth as Brontëan rather than Austenesque heroine.

The turmoil caused by Elizabeth Linley’s elopement with Sheridan would find an echo, if one of less sensational nature, in Gainsborough’s own life. Some ten years later both his daughters, Margaret and Mary, became infatuated with one his musical circle, the oboist and composer Johann Christian Fischer. One of the outstanding virtuosos of his day, Fischer had arrived in London in 1768, having formerly been, like Abel, a member of the Dresden court orchestra. In London he performed at the famous Bach-Abel concerts where, according to Burney, only Fischer “was allowed to compose for himself, and in a style so new and fanciful, that in point of invention, as well as tone, taste, expression, and neatness of execution, his piece was always regarded as one of the highest treats of the night”. Gainsborough was somewhat less flattering to Fischer, remarking that he had “no more sense than his oboe”, and giving his consent to the oboist’s marriage to Mary in 1780 only with great reluctance. Gainsborough’s concerns proved well founded. Within six months he found that Fischer had deceived him as to his means and the marriage broke up.

Notwithstanding such family trauma, the full-length portrait (now in the Royal Collection at St James’ Palace) Gainsborough painted of Fischer at much the same time as the marriage is one of his finest of a musician. If Gainsborough harboured reservations about Fischer’s character, it has to be recalled that they had been friends for some years, and as so often in his portraits of people with whom the artist was intimate, the portrait is entirely sympathetic. The oboist is shown in classic eighteenth-century posture, leaning easily on a piano built by Joseph Merlin (another of Gainsborough’s friends and portrait subjects), one leg casually crossed in front of the other. Around him are the tools of his trade, his beautifully painted oboe lying on the piano, music on the stand, and a violin resting on a chair. Fischer, dressed in a velvet suit painted in a range of rich, but subdued reds and browns, is obviously caught in the act of composition, pen poised, eyes raised as if awaiting fresh inspiration. His features – elongated, handsome and finely chiselled - give every suggestion of being those of a man over whom young girls might swoon, if also of a certain air of vanity.

Of all Gainsborough’s musical friends there seems little doubt that the one for whom he entertained the greatest affection was the German émigré Carl Friedrich Abel. While we have no surviving evidence of his reaction to the death in 1782 of Johann Christian Bach, his grief at that of his old viol teacher at the age of sixty-three five years later was profound. On 20 June 1787 he wrote to Henry Bate-Dudley:

Poor Abel died about one o’clock today, without pain, after three day’s sleep… We love a genius for what he leaves and we mourn him for what he takes away. If Abel was not so great a man as Handel it was because caprice had ruined music before he ever took up his pen. For my part I shall never cease looking up to heaven – the little while I have to stay behind – in hopes of getting one more glance of the man I loved from the moment I heard him touch the string.

Interestingly, this is the only mention of Handel made by Gainsborough in his surviving correspondence, and the only observation he made that suggests he may have had reservations about the “caprice” of the galant style.

Abel had arrived in London in 1759. During 1760s and 1770s, he and J. C. Bach were responsible for promoting highly successful subscription concerts in London, but he appears to have first met Gainsborough when he came to Bath to perform in the early 1760s, apparently at the behest of William Jackson. Thereafter the two enjoyed a close and convivial friendship that appears to have been founded on mutual admiration. According to Jackson, Gainsborough’s generosity led him to give Abel paintings and drawings worth “some hundreds of pounds”, the composer’s apartments being covered with Gainsborough’s drawings. Gainsborough painted at least two portraits of Abel, both of which show him with his viol. The earlier (housed in the National Portrait Gallery, London) was painted shortly after the two men first met, and shows Abel taking a pause from playing his instrument, his bowing arm at rest against his knee.

The other, and far more famous portrait (housed in the Art Gallery of the Huntington Library, Ca.), dates from some fifteen years later. Surely one of the most instantly lovable of all musical portraits, it is tempting to view it as one that could only have been the product of intimate friendship. As with the portrait of Fischer, Abel is caught in the midst of composing. But unlike the oboist, he is not seeking inspiration form above, but looks out toward the viewer, a half-smile playing on his pleasant features. It is as if a welcome friend had entered his room, although without having disturbed Abel’s Pomeranian dog, which sleeps contentedly at its master’s feet. Here the gambist’s instrument lies precariously across his knee, the bow resting further up his thigh, perhaps ready for a passage or two to be tried out. The picture has, too, much to please the art connoisseur, the subtle mix of primary and secondary colours set off by the white of the dog’s face, and the composer’s stockings and wig.

As John Hayes noted, the death of Abel marked the end of era for Gainsborough. The intimations of mortality alluded to in his letter to Bate Dudley were prescient. Little more than thirteen months later, Gainsborough himself would be dead after living a full, richly endowed life incorporating both supreme achievement and convivial friendship. 


John Hayes (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough (Yale, 2001)

Stephen Butler, Gainsborough (London, 1992)

Michael Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough (Yale, 1999)

Richard Leppert, Music and Image (Cambridge, 1988)

I am also indebted to Lynda Sayce for her excellent note in the booklet accompanying the CD “Music for Gainsborough” and for providing extracts from William Jackson’s The Four Ages.    



 This article first appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine