Review: Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations, Holburne Museum of Art


Runs until 22nd January.  Curator: Sue Sloman

Only the second temporary exhibitions since the Holburne re-opened in May 2011, the museum could hardly have found a greater contrast to its previous exhibition ‘Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself’.  But once again the exhibition runs along the theme of the artist’s personal tastes.  Highlighted throughout the exhibition is Gainsborough’s preference for landscape painting over the banality of the society portraits which made him his fame and fortune.  While landscapes often made up the background for portraits, here we see Gainsborough exploring landscape as a genre in its own right.  The exhibition is based around six major oil paintings, accompanied by a large number of sketches and studies in a variety of media, which inform the viewer’s understanding of the paintings.  Each of the paintings acts as the centrepiece of a chapter of movement in the exhibition, leading the viewer through the development of Gainsborough’s style as we move through his life.  The exhibition has drawn together pieces from museums and galleries across the country, as well as some from private collections, making it a pleasingly comprehensive display.  We are able to see a side of Gainsborough little known, or little known to the public.  His sketches, in pencil, charcoal and inks among other media, reveal his deftness of execution, some verging on abstractions by how radically he has reduced forms to their essentials.  In one piece a cart named in the title is portrayed with so few strokes that it is almost impossible to make out, in another, sheep are simple to the point of possibly being shrubbery.  The paintings themselves develop from this deftness, creating charming pastoral scenes, and cleverly developed compositions, executed with precise calculation of the overall effect this will have on the viewer.

The exhibition offers rare insights and is substantial content well worth the £6.95p ticket.  However, at some points the exhibition disappoints.  Sloman, or the Museum, seem to have focused on some slightly tenuous links.  Gainsborough’s love of music (himself a skilled musician, playing the viola de gamba) and his many musical friends are used to justify a comparison between his process and the composition of a piece of music.  This idea of ‘themes and variations’ thus refers in the exhibition to the way he returned to compositional ideas and explored similar subjects within his landscapes (something that could be said of most artists, whatever their subject).  One cannot help but feel that this is an unnecessary cluttering of ideas.  This is justified by Gainsborough’s practice of using broccoli and coal to make models exploring possible landscape compositions, a practice which was common among artists exploring landscape at the time, and which is surely simple to understand without the allusion to a classical composer or conductor.  This desire to add an extra layer of interest (seeing Gainsborough as blurring the line between music and painting) detracts from the genuine interest of the artists exploring his own pleasures and interests, with no aim of material gain.  It is arguable whether such an angle was needed to guide the viewer through an exhibition which is already essentially chronological, and easy to follow.

A fact that cannot be denied is that of the six major oil paintings, only three specifically focus on landscape.   The others focus, ideologically and compositionally, on the human figures in the landscape.  One presents a farmyard scene of work-horses resting after a day’s work, the second, on peasants travelling and their home in the background, and the third taken up largely by a young girl, who sits watching three pigs drinking from a dish of milk.  All three of the purer landscape paintings include human stories, allying themselves with the landscapes dressed up as classical myths that became popular around this period.  Only in the latest painting ‘Mountainous landscape with shepherds and sheep (Romantic Landscape)’ c1783, does he seem to feel comfortable subordinating the human stories to the landscape itself.  So in a way the exhibition seems to have accidentally highlighted the reluctance to accept landscape as worthy of major works that was present at the time.  This is not to suggest a failing in Gainsborough himself, but while the exhibitions seeks to champion the landscape genre, and demonstrate it as flourishing earlier than general opinion suggests (which has the rise of landscape linked with the Romantic movement, Turner and Constable), it in fact seems to demonstrate the extent to which artists still struggled to have landscape accepted, and were themselves unable to pursue it as a means in its own right, even in the diluted form offered by Gainsborough’s landscapes, populated by peasants and shepherds.  He often gave landscape sketches to friends, as gifts.

However the exhibition as a whole remains an interesting and worthwhile undertaking; even if its conclusions are far from overwhelming or game-changing.  Curating does not seem to be of the highest standard, with labelling inconsistencies and in places an almost irrelevant choice of information.  Prime example is ‘Going to Market’ also known as ‘Landscape with Peasants returning from market’.  Yes, this is as glaringly obvious as it seems.  The frame proclaims the title ‘Going to Market’, while the label sides with returning.  This is at odds with what is depicted.  While the lighting is ambiguous, and could be interpreted either as a sunrise or sunset, the peasants travel away from home, their bags laden with vegetables, produce typically grown at home during this period.  No explanation of this discrepancy is made on the label, and it was only by reading the accompanying book (priced £14.95p) that I learnt Sloman’s justification: that people sitting outside the house suggests the evening after work.  Research I have done into this since visiting suggests that this is also at odds with the accepted interpretation of the piece, not simply the obvious interpretation I have undertaken.  Another tenuous link to blight the exhibition is the suggestion that the girl with pig’s pose is carried through to a later sketch of a maid on a doorstep, in a slightly strained attempt to follow through with the title ‘Themes and Variations’.  While I must not become bogged down in these trifles, such tenuous links and outright inconsistencies detract from the overall experience of the exhibition, and lead one to question whether a little more effort could not be put into informing the visitor, rather than simply presenting them with as many similar sketches as possible.

Having said all this, I feel I should clarify that I genuinely enjoyed the exhibition, and did so on multiple visits, the quality and interest of the paintings and sketches, and the many varying techniques displayed, easily making up for the at times confused and confusing ideas expressed by the curator.

3 responses to “Review: Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations, Holburne Museum of Art

  1. Stumbled across your blog when I was researching Robert Bevan. I will now have to look back on your earlier entries. They really do look very professional.

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    • Thanks, glad it’s of interest to you. The Robert Bevan piece I wrote about is in the Ashmoleon, in Oxford. I can’t say I know much about him, but the style is very interesting. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. This exhibition will present works by the three towering figures of English landscape painting – John Constable RA, Thomas Gainsborough RA and JMW Turner RA – and will explore the development of the British school of landscape painting. The display will include 150 works of art, including paintings, prints, books and archival material.

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