Mr & Mrs Andrews, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1750

Mr and Mrs Andrews is about money, possessions and power. It is 18th century English class society laid bare on canvas. This young couple opted to celebrate their marriage, and combining their families' fortune by commissioning a relatively unknown painter named Thomas Gainsborough to paint their portraits. Little could they anticipate that within a few decades it would be the artist, and not them that would make their portrait famous. This painting is in the National Gallery, London.

 

 

The Story

This is a conventional portrait – with a difference.

 

A couple are shown relaxing in their best leisure clothes against the backdrop, not of a Capability Brown designed landscape garden, but their farmland. Gainsborough shoves his subjects to the side; they are at odds with, rather than part of, the land and sky sweeping away from them. In their posh clothes, they look artificial, unconvincing.

 

Thomas Gainsborough, who eventually became a brilliant flatterer of the English aristocracy, painted a squire showing off his wife and land in 1748 or thereabouts. As a twenty-two year old he had not yet learned subtlety. Or perhaps it was the Suffolk rawness of Mr and Mrs Andrews themselves that dictated the surprising frankness of his painting of them on their estate: The Auberies, on the Suffolk-Essex border. They wanted to get it all in - the agricultural richness of their land, its scope, their absolute ownership - as they pose in front of an English oak tree. They wanted the world to know they were wealthy.

 

Gainsborough’s portrait is typical of “conversation pieces;" informal group portraits which gained popularity in the middle of the 18th century in England. The "conversation piece" usually presented a small group of individuals in an outdoor space, engaged in discussion and unaware of the viewer’s presence. Mr and Mrs. Andrews diverts from that tradition, as its sitters are clearly reacting to Gainsborough’s presence, but their relaxed poses and location in the English countryside connects them to the "conversation piece" tradition.

 Picture Highlights

The painting depicts Robert Andrews, and his wife, Frances Mary Carter. The two were promised to each other when Mr. Andrews was 15 or 16 years old and were married when he was 22 years old, and she was 16 years old. Far from being a romantic match, the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews was a business transaction. In a world before the widespread existence of corporations, we are essentially looking at Mr. and Mrs. Andrews PLC.

 

Robert Andrews and his future wife grew up in Sudbury,Suffolk in wealthy families. In his portrait, Gainsborough captures the barely-veiled disdain in Frances Andrews’ eyes and her wry smile. She and her husband are well aware that the portraitist, whom they would have known since childhood, is well below them on the social ladder.

 

Following the "conversation piece" tradition, Gainsborough includes a landscape in his painting. However, he provides a much greater view of rural England than might be expected from such a work. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews pose on the left half of the canvas, rather than directly in the middle as was typical in a straightforward portrait. On the right side, Gainsborough gives equal attention to the grounds of The Auberies, the Andrews’ estate in Sudbury.

 

The couple are located on the edge of a field of wheat, and fenced-in cattle populate the middle ground to the left while sheep graze to the right of the pair, with a cowshed just visible in the background on the left. Through the implementation of modern agricultural techniques and technology, Mr. Andrews has brought the land under his control. We do not see the rural labourers who would have worked the land. The Andrews’ wealth is presented as an inevitable outcome of privilege. We are invited to admire the commercial success of the farm owner and the life style benefits it brought to the Andrews’, who could afford the most expensive clothes from London tailors.

 

This is reinforced by Mr Andrew’s pose which is meant to suggest that his work is done and he can now relax and hunt with his dog, although he doesn’t look very comfortable holding his rifle.

 

Mrs. Andrews’ dress possesses the pastel colours and delicate lace of more erotic French works like Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing. Her dress and Mr. Andrews’ shirt glimmer in sunlight, despite the overcast sky. Mrs. Andrews’s sits on a bench that is entirely too elaborate to sit exposed in the middle of a wheat field. The top of the bench is decorated in Rococo style.

 

Mr Andrews is wearing a sporty shooting jacket and a large cocked hat that were all the rage among trendy Londoners at the time. He is the epitome of elegant leisure and moneyed privilege. Only landowners owning property worth £100 or more were allowed to hunt game.

 

Both figures are pale and lithe, reflecting the upper class privilege of not having to work for a living. Their expansive estate functions as an ostentatious demonstration of their wealth: it continues as far as the eye can see. But something is missing from the work. A bare canvas surrounds Mrs. Andrews' hands, folded in her lap. No one knows exactly what Gainsborough intended to paint in that space, if he intended to paint anything at all. Some have suggested that Mrs. Andrews was meant to hold a dead game bird, the result of a successful hunting trip by her husband. Such an inclusion would emphasise the couple’s control over their land, but a bloody animal would ruin Mrs. Andrews’ elaborate dress, and therefore seems unlikely.

 

Another possibility for Mrs. Andrews’ lap is that the blank space was intended for a baby. Regardless of what was meant to go in that spot, Gainsborough never added it in. Modern scholars consider the painting to be “unfinished,” but we’ll never know what the original finished work was to look like, or if it’s current state was as “finished” as Gainsborough and the Andrews wanted.

 

Towards the back of the painting we can see the neat parallel rows of corn produced by Jethro Tull's revolutionary seed drill; showing that this is a thoroughly modern and efficient farm. Robert was a keen farmer, whose letter in 1768 to the agriculturalist Arthur Young "On the Smut in Wheat" was published in Young's Annals of Agriculture. As such details are not typical of Gainsborough's landscapes; it seems likely that they were Robert Andrews' idea. In fact the whole wheat field has been brought far closer to the house than would really have been the case; it is invented, or transposed from further away. If read literally, the sheaves of corn would be thrusting through the porch of the Auberies itself.

 

The painting remained with the family until sold by Gerald Willoughbury Andrews (b. 1896, a great-great-great-grandson of the sitters) at Sotheby's in London on 23 March 1960. It was bought for £130,000 by the National Gallery.

 

Painter's Daughters Chasing A Butterfly by Gainsborough
Girl with Pigs by Gainsborough
The Cottage Door by Gainsborough
The Bigger Picture

The Andrews pose in the painting as members of the landed gentry, the free- holding class of squires and peers. This class not only owned most of England but controlled Parliament. It is thought that they numbered some 8000 to 20,000 families. The majority had large estates generating an annual income of £1,000-£3000, allowing them to lead a life of leisure and be able to afford entry to Parliament. Even larger estates were owned by small elite of peers and lords of ancient aristocratic lineage.

 

People like Robert Andrew’s father saw the opportunity to buy his son into this elite. Originally he started out a silversmith in London but saw the opportunity to generate huge profits from lending money.

 

The bulk of the Andrews fortune came from property investments, churning out rental income, but history has also uncovered that the father of Robert made substantial high-interest loans to those in need of capital. He was an 18th century money lender who lent money at high rates of interest to members of the aristocracy that had fallen on hard times.

 

In fact, even the Prince of Wales was £30,000 in debt to the older Mr. Andrews; a substantial sum that would work out to £3.9 million today. Old man Andrews owned ships that traded with the colonies – possibly in slaves. In an effort to help his son gain access to the upper class, he bought an estate, arranged the marriage to Frances Carter, and put in place the process by which he would take over the family business.

 

The bride’s family, on the other hand, had built a fortune in the drapery business. They were able to use the Andrews family fortune to protect their textile mills, preventing them from collapse.

 

The painting depicts the Auberies estate, which was part of her dowry at marriage, becoming the property of her husband, the younger Mr. Andrews. The land bordered the bride’s father’s estate, known as Ballingdon. The church glimpsed in the middle of the work is All Saints, Sudbury, where the couple had been married.

 

On the right hand side the barns of the home farm of Frances' childhood home at Ballington Hall can be seen; such an identifiable and accurately depicted location is unusual in Gainsborough's work, and was probably a specific request of the sitters.

 

Their house, also called The Auberies, would be in their sight in the portrait, behind the viewer to his right, and much closer than the picture implies.The couple had nine children, and when Frances Andrews died at 48 in 1780, Robert remarried; he died in 1806 aged 80.The painting is a visual image of power and a celebration of the self-made millionaires. It is unlike other similar portraits of the 18th century and provides us with a time capsule of a father’s ambitions for his son and his son’s success as an efficient businessman.

 

This leaves the question of why rural workers are consistently avoided in landscapes of the time. In essence the gentry believed that work was precisely what their class had been freed from. Work characterised a different class, with which the gentry had no wish to be identified. Work was not the thing gentlemen did. Mixing labour and leisure was regarded as disagreeable.

 

This portrait separates the two absolutely.

 

 

Gainsborough was, with Reynolds (his main rival), the leading portrait painter in England in the later 18th century. The feathery brushwork of his mature work and rich sense of colour contribute to the enduring popularity of his portraits. Unlike Reynolds, he avoids references to Italian Renaissance art or the antique, and shows his sitters in fashionable contemporary dress.

 

Thomas Gainsborough was born in May 1727 in Sudbury, Suffolk, the son of a cloth merchant. He showed artistic skills at an early age. When he was 13 he was sent to London to study drawing and etching with the French engraver Hubert Gravelot who was a popular Rococo engraver. The Rococo was a French style, imported by artists like Hubert-François Gravelot and by English collectors.

 

In the early 1700s England did not have a strong painting tradition, and its most famous artists were international painters who travelled to London to take advantage of that fact. Gainsborough looked to the frivolous, playful paintings being commissioned by French aristocrats, and applied their delicate style to slightly more reserved and contained subjects.

 

In 1749 Gainsborough moved with his wife to Ipswich, 70 miles from London and just 20 miles from his birthplace of Sudbury. Ambitious to win more commissions , Gainsborough moved to the fashionable spa town of Bath in 1759. His sitters were now authors, actors and members of high society.

 

After he had moved from Ipswich to Bath the influence of Rubens superseded that of the Dutch painters, and, though the sincerity of feeling survives, his landscapes become actually more artificial in structure and colour. Trees of a warm rich brown give value to the blues of his skies, and the masses of his subject are arranged with a more deliberate art.

 

Yet even when most influenced by others Gainsborough remains an instinctive painter. Though the manner may derive from Rubens there remains an inescapable sentiment which is his own. The subject-matter of his pictures is mostly drawn from the East Anglian scenes of his youth, and in his later work these scenes are invested with the association of memory.

 

In 1768, he was elected a founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

 

He moved to London in 1774, where he built a studio in the garden of his Pall Mall house. In 1780, he was commissioned to paint portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte. Gainsborough became a royal favourite, fuelling his rivalry with the official court painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.

 

In reality, Gainsborough hated rich clients. His letters are full of loathing for the "gentlemen" who came to his studio expecting him to pay court, to flatter, to play the servant. "They think (and so may you for a while) that they reward your merit by their company and notice," he advised a friend, "but I know that they have only one part worth looking at, and that is their purse." He gave his servant orders to ask any gentlemen who came to his house what they desired of Mr Gainsborough; if they wanted to commission a portrait, they were to be let in, but if they just wanted to talk to the celebrity artist and boast about their Grand Tour and whatnot, the servant was to send them packing.

 

Gainsborough has been described as one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time. He was noted for the speed with which he applied paint, and he worked more from observations of nature (and of human nature) than from application of formal academic rules.

 

Gainsborough's enthusiasm for landscapes is shown in the way he merged figures of the portraits with the scenes behind them. His landscapes were often painted at night by candlelight, using a tabletop arrangement of stones, pieces of mirrors, broccoli, and the like as a model.

 

His later work was characterised by a light palette and easy, economical strokes. His most famous works, Portrait of Mrs. Graham; Mary and Margaret: The Painter's Daughters; William Hallett and His Wife Elizabeth, nee Stephen, known as The Morning Walk; and Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher, display the unique individuality of his subjects. Joshua Reynolds considered Girl with Pigs the best picture Gainsborough ever painted or perhaps ever will.

 

Gainsborough had two talented daughters, Mary and Margaret who he tried to train for professional careers as artists. He dreamt that they could make a living as landscape painters. Instead they got caught up in high society without being part of it; they were treated at Bath and at court as performing freaks, and ended up living together, regarded as lonely eccentrics. There wasn't much place for the talented daughters of an artist in a society full of class and gender distinctions. This relationship and Gainsborough’s hope for his daughters is captured in The Painter's Daughters Chasing A Butterfly (c. 1756), which is in the National Gallery. They pursue a fleeting winged image through a darkened garden; they are lit magically, yet all around them are deep, impenetrable shadows. They are moving forward, into life, out of the protection of their parents, into a future as breakable as a butterfly's wing.

 

Gainsborough is the father of English landscape painting, but the fact that he was forced to devote the greater part of his time to portrait painting prevented him from developing his powers. His early work is atmospheric and true. The Cornard Wood (National Gallery) illustrates this phase of his work. It is full of close and searching study as were his other early landscapes.

 

Gainsborough was never drawn to the classical school of landscape any more than he was to the 'grand style' in figure-painting, yet these pictures are in a sense ideal, and they are seen through the golden haze of happy memories, which gives them a similar sadness to that of his figure-pictures. This was Gainsborough's world of escape from the daily jars and irritations of his life as a portrait-painter, and it is full of an innocent rustic life.

 

In his innocent and simple approach. Gainsborough was the forerunner of John Constable. He has the same love of great masses of trees, and the same love of skies and moving clouds.

 

In later life, Gainsborough started painting idealized themes of rural life, such as The Cottage Door (1780), along with pictures of rural beggar children, gypsies and child labourers - sad and ragged but still well-fed.He had little patience with boring and tiresome sitters, and he was too natural and instinctive a painter for this not to show in his work. From the beginning to the end he painted as his own exquisite sensibilities directed, and in no other way.

 

Gainsborough died in 1788.

 

FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT GAINSBOROUGH