Significant Omissions: Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews

By klayperson • ART HISTORY • 4:00 pm

Gainsborough's Mr. and Mrs. Andrews

Significant Omissions: Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews

There is an obvious lack of traditional criticism on Gainsborough’s work at UCSC’s McHenry Library. As a representative UC student, I can understand and sympathize with this lack since, unless forced to do so because of a research paper, I would never have been interested enough in Gainsborough’s art to research it, let alone discover that the supply of information is but minimal. This profound lack of interest in Gainsborough, both on the part of UCSC’s library and myself, UCSC’s art history protégé, is symptomatic of the university’s greater values and priorities, within art history, education, and scholarship in general.
McHenry Library contains hardly any of the standard biographies and criticisms on Gainsborough which are cited in every later work on the subject. These include William Whitley’s Thomas Gainsborough, the standard biography; Mary Woodall’s compilation of Gainsborough’s Letters; Fulcher’s early biography; Armstrong’s oft-cited monograph; Hayes’ original groundbreaking catalog; or Thicknesse’s rare but extremely important and controversial biography, written in memory of his friend. McHenry’s collection includes a few of Hayes’ catalogs, Waterhouse’s highly esteemed catalog, and Reynolds’ tribute to his fellow artist included in his Discourses. One might notice that the authors of each of these standard texts are Englishmen, who would naturally feel compelled to praise and defend one of the few great artists from their country. Mostly Gainsborough is represented at UCSC by several “coffee table books” and repetitive, unoriginal, and superficial biographies. From these omissions, certain assumptions can be deduced about UCSC’s attitudes toward Thomas Gainsborough. Either the school feels that his work is not worthy of the effort to collect pertinent traditional, historical works, or these values broaden to all of art history: that UCSC simply is not concerned with accumulating older, traditionally based art historical works.
UCSC is obviously much more concerned with art theory than art history. A survey of just the titles of art history courses offered alludes to this fact. (Courses such as “Constructing Representations,” “Myth and Gender,” “Humanisms and Historicisms,” and “Contemporary Masculinities” abound whereas more traditional survey courses or courses focused on a single artist are rare.) Accordingly, UCSC’s library houses books in the form of the “new art history”—books which, while not dealing solely with Gainsborough, include analyses of him within frameworks of non-traditional art theories. Thus, many of UCSC’s more theoretically based books dealing with the art of Gainsborough do not have such obvious titles as (dare I suggest) Thomas Gainsborough or even The Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough. Instead, they are grouped under thematic (and consequently sometimes vague) titles such as Barrell’s popular The Dark Side of the Landscape, Bermingham’s Landscape and Ideology, Paulson’s Emblem and Expression, Buchwald’s article in Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics, or Berger’s Ways of Seeing. UCSC’s preference for this type of theoretical material is further strengthened by loyalty within the UC system, and that Bermingham is a professor at UC Irvine. Or just as likely and with the same results, all of the UC schools developed their emphases on art theory concurrently, and have fostered one another’s development in that direction.
These theoretical texts have certain distinguishing attributes in common. They tend not to value paintings as “better,” “worse,” or “masterpiece” based on a Renaissance ideal of painterly quality. Instead, they accept the established attribution of Gainsborough’s work and work within it. In the preface of his 1915 monograph on Gainsborough, Whitley criticizes this method of scholarship. “Most of his biographers seem to have assumed that little or nothing new could be discovered about him, and that the only thing to be done was to re-arrange the existing material to the best advantage.” (Whitley, pp. vii-viii) Yet postmodernism has allowed scholars to rearrange old material in combination with otherwise unrelated sources and in fact say something much different. Their theories are new, if their materials are not. Later writers on Gainsborough have used theories of Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, semiotics, and structuralism to deconstruct traditional, common notions of the paintings. And, as many of these writers are from the United States, they do not feel the English pressure to heroicise their native Gainsborough. However, although their views might appear objective, every writer works toward some goal. The agendas of postmodern works vary according to their individual ideologies, whereas the traditional monographs tend to address a single artistic personality.
While I vehemently believe that postmodern theory is equally as important as (and as the student who was bred in the postmodern classroom, infinitely more interesting than) traditional scholarship, I cannot help but wonder if UCSC has gone too far in its exclusion of earlier works. Traditional art scholarship contains research and shows roots of theories that are missing in later works. By ignoring the primary and standard literature on Gainsborough, UCSC has dehistoricized an important landmark in the history of art. Both traditional art history and postmodern art theory have their roles in the realm of art scholarship. Neither should replace the other.
When specifically focusing on Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, one must by necessity look toward more modern criticism. Standard literature on Gainsborough tends to focus on Gainsborough’s personal life and superficially on some of his works. Until fairly recently, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews has been overlooked. The first mention of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews occurs in Armstrong’s 1904 biography of Gainsborough. The painting only receives minimal attention in the catalog of pictures following his main body of text. “An early picture, painted at Auberies, near Sudbury,” is the only description of “Mr. and Mrs. R. Andrewes.” (Armstrong, P.257) The couple’s first names are not even important enough to mention, and “Andrewes,” if not misspelled, is at least spelled differently by choice in almost every later description of the painting. Neither Reynolds, Thicknesse, Fulcher, nor Whitley ever mention the existence of a Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, yet writers on Gainsborough commonly cite these studies as invaluable documents in the study of Gainsborough’s art.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews must wait until Waterhouse’s 1953 overview of British painting and then his extensive catalog, published in 1958, before it receives the general respect of a recognized masterpiece. Here, with no written precedence for deeming it as such, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews fills the role of the young Gainsborough’s early masterpiece. “It may be to a small extent an accident that certain of these small-scale pictures, notably the Mr. and Mrs. Andrews…, by being combined with a landscape background of just the same degree of fresh informality, should happen to be rightly seen as masterpieces by modern eyes.” (Waterhouse, 1958, p.17) Yet although Mr. and Mrs. Andrews is a “masterpiece,” important enough to deserve a color detail and black and white plate in this influential catalog, Waterhouse gives the painting no further description or comment than this one sentence.
In fact, Waterhouse’s captions to the plates of this painting and the information within the catalog listing itself are contradictory, and misleading. In the catalog portion of his monograph, Waterhouse places Mr. and Mrs. Andrews in the collection of London’s National Gallery. But in his “Index of the Present Owners of Paintings”, the painting is part of G. W. Andrews’ private collection. At this time the National Gallery in London must have been negotiating for or planning to buy the painting which perhaps was on loan and was eventually acquired in 1960. This would explain its sudden emergence as an established but unstudied masterpiece. But Waterhouse gives no provenance of the painting (unlike his careful notes of most of the other paintings in his catalog), leaving his readers to draw their own conclusions as to its whereabouts.
Waterhouse further misleads his readers by calling Mrs. Andrews Mary. Catalogs of the National Gallery tell us that her full name was Frances Mary Carter. Every scholar following Waterhouse confidently refers to her as Frances Carter. Waterhouse’s outstanding, and one would think obvious mistake was never directly corrected or chastised by later writers. Instead, they consistently call her Frances, and just as often praise Waterhouse’s intensive study. The mistake first of all, and also its being ignored by later scholars, point to a common lack of interest in discerning facts about this painting. More than that though, it reveals a lack of interest in Mrs. Andrews as an important element of the painting unto herself. She is acknowledged only as a possession of her husband. Her own identity (and women’s identity in general, one might expand, at least in Waterhouse’s case) is not even important enough to validate. For such an accepted masterpiece, the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews holds much mystery in simple, factual areas that should be the least troublesome in the analysis of any painting.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews goes on to be further ignored in important studies on Gainsborough. After Waterhouse breaks the ice by at least mentioning the painting, every later monograph does the same: they bring up the Andrews portrait as an early masterpiece and then refuse to discuss it much further. John Hayes, in his first book containing paintings by Gainsborough, cites Mr. and Mrs. Andrews as the classic example of involving “figures and landscape one with the other,” (Hayes, 1975, p.41) then says no more about the painting until its entry in the catalog. Other major works by Gainsborough are worthy of several paragraphs in the same introductory discussion of this book. In the catalog, Hayes describes the painting in one concise paragraph, covering apparently every necessary aspect of the work, as his 1982 discussion of the work contains no new information. Furthermore, the huge Tate show of 1980-1981 of Gainsborough’s work, which John Hayes curated and for which he wrote the accompanying exhibition catalog, did not include this supposed masterpiece. The show’s book does briefly mention the painting in its introduction as “an opportunity for Gainsborough to display his powers as a landscape painter.” (Hayes, 1980, p.42). In the margin is a one-by-two inch black and white reproduction of the painting. How can such an important masterpiece be reduced to a minuscule reproduction in what is supposedly the comprehensive exhibit of a master’s work? Such shoddy representation of the painting devalues rather than emphasizes its monumentality.
Perhaps traditional literature shies away from analyzing Mr. and Mrs. Andrews because it stands alone as an atypical work in the realm of Gainsborough’s oeuvre. In the little that is written about this painting in traditional literature, why Gainsborough did not continue painting in this manner is a question repeatedly posed. “One would have supposed that…Gainsborough’s art would have developed along the lines of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, especially when he was working in a genre which was in request with country patrons. But such did not prove to be the case.” (Hayes, 1982, p.203) Traditionalists point out that here Gainsborough paints from nature and that the portrait equals the landscape in importance. In his later paintings, Gainsborough uses the landscape as a mere background for his portraits, or the figure is used as an excuse for a landscape. Furthermore, although there is evidence to suggest that Gainsborough continued to sketch from nature, his later paintings were of idealized landscapes, painted from imagination or miniature models. “In a sense [Mr. and Mrs. Andrews] is at once the promise and fulfillment of all that Gainsborough might have been.” (Waterhouse, 1953, p.174)
Whereas the traditionalists stop at idly wondering why Gainsborough did not continue in this vein, later theoretical writers combine standard information about the artist with other information to answer that question. In Landscape and Ideology, Ann Bermingham devotes a large discussion to the analysis of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. “Although Gainsborough’s portrait Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews of about 1748-1749 is often taken to exemplify the genre of the outdoor conversation piece, its atypicality is striking.” (Bermingham, p.28) First, Bermingham notes that the typical conversation piece is set in a landscape garden. Gainsborough’s farm setting renders impossible the conventional trope of man’s integration into a self-made “nature.” “Unlike the traditional garden setting that naturalizes behavior based on an ideal of nature, the field in this painting reveals the particular economic relationship to the land on which the Andrewses’ behavior is based: economic productivity.” (ibid., p.29)
Instead of removing the figure to the fantasy of ideal nature which in reality would be a planned part of a cultivated property, Gainsborough stresses the mutual effects of land and man upon each other. By placing figures in a landscape garden, typical conversation pieces deny the very method by which the people depicted are privileged enough to afford a landscape garden, and to afford the leisure to enjoy it. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews allows no such denial. The source of their wealth, their crops, is clearly as important as Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’ presence in the portrait.
There is a more honest form of integration into nature in this painting than in other conversation pieces. Mr. Andrews is depicted comfortable and casual on his property. His gun and dog show signs of his hunting, also drawing him closer to the nature of his surroundings. Meanwhile, his property shows the signs of his management; the enclosed land is organized and well planned by man. “Andrews bears the mark of nature, naturalness, and nature bears the mark of human nature, cultivation.” (ibid., p.29)
There is a timelessness and truthfulness in this painting that could not have existed if it showed a landscape garden. A landscape garden is a conspicuous sign of leisure, one in which even the most privileged person could not constantly live. It has a time limit—at some point people enjoying the landscape garden must leave it and return to the “real world.” Although not actually in direct contact with the dirt and work of their “real world,” the Andrewses at least have not attempted to deny its existence.
This very honesty in the painting enables Bermingham to explain why this type of painting was not continued. The farm is visible, easily understood evidence of manual labor. A landscape garden, even though constructed, appears to be entirely natural and unrelated to human intervention or intention. “The Andrews portrait remained an unpopular anomaly, then, not because work was something the gentry did not do but because any suggestion of labor in the context of a leisured gentry was unacceptable.” (ibid., p.31)
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews contains too many mixed signals for the comfort of the gentry. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews obviously have leisure time—to hunt, to wear finery, to sit for their portrait. Their well-tended crops stand as proof that they did not work the land. While the Andrewses play, workpeople care for their source of income. “Even as the painting celebrates a self-identity of proprietor and property, it betrays an alienation.” (ibid., p.31) The owners are naturalized in their land, yet they are not a part of it. Much safer is the painting that is a total fantasy. Knowing the history of landscape gardens from a postmodern perspective, one could realize that paintings of them imply the same estrangement from the land. But on a purely visual and uninformed level (on which Gainsborough always claimed to be painting), a landscape garden holds no threat. It is merely a pleasing piece of nature. The portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews comes dangerously close to revealing rich people’s sordid truth. As Gainsborough was supported by painting rich people’s portraits, it stands to follow that he would retreat to a more benign, accepted manner of depiction.
John Barrell, in The Dark Side of the Landscape (1980) discusses eighteenth century English landscape painting in terms of Marxism. He focuses on the division between the classes, and the way in which wealthy people are represented in the landscape, and how they liked to see the poor. “What is likely to be true, or course, in any developed or developing society; but what has often been denied about English society in the eighteenth century is that its members exhibit any consciousness of class at all.” (Barrell, p.2) Rich landowners wanted to see themselves and the poor happily coexisting in nature; the poor being poor and happy, and the rich being rich and happy.
Barrell chooses Gainsborough’s late series of “cottage door” paintings to exemplify the wealthy eighteenth century Englishman’s ideal landscape. “The rustic figures become…more and more ragged, but remain inexplicably cheerful.” (Barrell, p.16) Barrell explains that wealthy landowners wished for a semblance of harmony among the classes, when in actuality both the rich and poor harbored resentment for each other. The poor resented their opposing class for obvious economic and political reasons, and the rich for feeling alienated from their own property. Barrell discusses landscape painting that portrays the two classes as content and self-satisfied.
By his omission of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, one must assume that this painting was purposefully overlooked. It does not agree with his argument. Indeed, as Bermingham’s book explains, this painting portrays the unfulfilled desire for the rich to be integrated into nature. The displays of wealth and nature seem to be diametrically opposed. Marcia Pointon too discusses Gainsborough’s later works as a safer domain in which he could paint. “It seems not extravagant to suggest that Gainsborough may possibly have developed the cottage subject in response to this appreciation for the elegaic, paradisal qualities in his landscapes.” (Pointon, p.450) In late portraits and his cottage door pieces, Gainsborough is often commissioned to paint wealthy patrons in the costume of the peasant. In comparison, his early Mr. and Mrs. Andrews seems blatantly truthful in how it depicts the upper class.
Still other writers acknowledge Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’ apparent differences from Gainsborough’s later paintings, yet they continue to regard it as the prototype and representative conversation piece. “This is the typical English conversation piece of the sort developed and elaborated upon by Zoffany a decade later. Demarcation and definition are all.” (Paulson, p.216) Bermingham and Barrell would argue that demarcation and definition are precisely what sets this piece apart. There is too much demarcation—the property is owned by the Andrewses, yet they cannot touch it. And too much is defined—we can readily see that the Andrewses are wealthy. They are overtly proud of their wealth, rather than modestly hiding in the false setting of an expensive oil painting’s landscape garden.
In the broad coverage but concise style of his Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger takes on this issue of pride in ownership. Despite what is shown in Mr. and Mrs. Andrews-—a young couple and their prosperous land—there is also the fact that the painting exists at all to document the image within it. “Why did Mr. and Mrs. Andrews commission a portrait of themselves with a recognizable landscape of their own land as background?…The point being made is that, among the pleasures their portrait gave to Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, was the pleasure of seeing themselves depicted as landowners and this pleasure was enhanced by the ability of oil paint to render their land in all its substantiality.” (Berger, pp.107-108) The Andrewses had the double pleasure of owning the land depicted, and of owning the painting that depicted them owning it.
Paulson and Rosenthal concur with Berger that Mr. and Mrs. Andrews portrays a man showing pride in ownership. “Whereas [other conversation pieces] usually set their subjects in a park, Andrews’s park is his farm, and we are meant to admire his progressive farming, lines of stubble showing that he has used a seed-drill, as well as his possessions: his dog, and his wife.” (Rosenthal, p.42)
Like the seeds that are drilled into Mr. Andrews’ farm, scholars of Gainsborough have had it drilled into their heads that Mr. and Mrs. Andrews depicts pride in ownership, but in a different way than other conversation pieces. It is painted from nature, the portrait and landscape are equally important, and it shows a farm rather than a landscape garden. Most significant, the pride is shown overtly. The Andrewses show no shame of being rich, unlike paintings that are just as expensive but try to portray the goodness in poverty and humility.
Only Bermingham, and Barrell in his backhanded way, address the issue of why Gainsborough quit painting in the style of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. We have the concurrence of traditionalists like Waterhouse and Hayes who, focusing directly on Gainsborough, state that he did not continue this style—that Mr. and Mrs. Andrews is an oddity among conversation pieces. Berger, Paulson, and Rosenthal use Mr. and Mrs. Andrews as the exemplary conversation piece in their arguments. The painting does indeed help their discussions, but using it as representative of a genre of paintings is misleading, and even they must admit, false.
Doesn’t the very fact that these writers choose Mr. and Mrs. Andrews from all the hundreds of conversation pieces prove that it is somehow different? Doesn’t the label “masterpiece” imply that a painting stands alone? If there was nothing to differentiate it from the others, it would not be a masterpiece, it would be just another like all the rest. There would be nothing special, nothing noteworthy about the painting. It would not be worth remembering. And so, it would not be worth discussion—why would authors write about the common when they can have the extraordinary?
It is strange that such an important masterpiece remains unfinished; stranger yet that scholars have not chosen to analyze the artist’s omission. The National Gallery’s scientific description of the painting (it is referred to by its catalog number rather than its name) is the first to note the unpainted portion of Mrs. Andrews’ lap. “It appears that she was intended to be shown holding a pheasant.” (The National Gallery, p.220) Hayes also comments that the blank spot was to have been a pheasant shot by Mr. Andrews, judging from the shape outlined. (Hayes, 1975, p.203) Perhaps it is due to my lack of imagination that I have been unable to perceive the shape of a pheasant or any bird in this piece of unpainted canvas.
Regardless of whether it was supposed to have been a pheasant or not, this significant omission on the part of the artist deserves more attention than it has received. On top of my decision to analyze this aspect (or lack thereof) of the painting, I am forced once again to analyze the scholars who have collected information on Gainsborough before me. Like UCSC’s library that has chosen to exclude traditional literature on Gainsborough, Gainsborough’s critics have chosen to exclude discussion of the missing pheasant.
Of the writers who bother to mention that there is an unpainted portion of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, most do not say more about it than that it was supposed to have been a dead pheasant. Jack Lindsay offers one possibility as to why Gainsborough might have left the painting unfinished. “Already he seems to have disliked returning to a work when he had once stopped working on it.” (Lindsay, p.26) This excuse is unbelievable. Why would the rest of the painting be so carefully worked when the blank spot is not even sketched in? And contrary to Hayes’ suggestion, the pheasant is not outlined except by where the paint ends. There is absolutely no painted evidence to suggest the intention of a pheasant. Furthermore, why would the Andrewses accept an incomplete painting? They had commissioned a finished portrait; it seems as though there would be a specific reason to want to own a painting with such a defined spot missing.
While it is true that Gainsborough often left his later paintings unfinished, every portion of the paintings is brought to the same point of resolution. They are not worked in the patchwork fashion of completing one feature before starting another. Gainsborough’s contemporary artist and rival Joshua Reynolds praised him for “his manner of forming all the parts of his picture together; the whole going on at the same time, in the same manner as nature creates her works.” (Reynolds, p.251) In view of Gainsborough’s normal painting style, the missing pheasant seems even more peculiar.
Once again we must turn to Bermingham to answer the questions that no one else will, but in this case even she is not willing to speculate much. Not even worthy of being included in the main body of her discussion, Bermingham’s pheasant explanation is reduced to the position of footnote. Here she devotes one sentence to justify Gainsborough’s omission. “Since birds often carried erotic connotations, the dead pheasant might have seemed inappropriate and thus left unfinished.” (Bermingham, p.202) Although Bermingham does not discuss the matter any further, her suggestion provokes further investigation. First, notice where the pheasant is not painted. Then bring Freud into the argument and let the analysis begin.
Given that birds carried sexual connotations (although the unscandalous presence of birds in still-lives disputes this), then the placement of the pheasant over the woman’s genitals is meaningful. The fact that it was not painted, Freud would suggest, is even more significant. The male artist fears the female genitals, so he hides them by a dead pheasant. But the pheasant becomes so much a euphemism for the genitals that the two are indistinguishable. In disgust, the artist effectively castrates the woman himself. He does not give her the pheasant—all she has is a void between her legs.
Does the fact that the pheasant was to be dead insinuate something of even greater magnitude, along these same lines of Freudian logic? With bird equaling sexuality, then a dead pheasant must imply passive sexuality. From Jack Lindsay’s chapter on Gainsborough’s friend and first biographer Philip Thicknesse in his 1981 monograph, we know that Thicknesse was extremely sexist. He not only felt that a woman’s place is in the home and that here “greatest pleasure should consist in rendering herself agreeable to her Husband” (Thicknesse, Thoughts on the Times, 1779, quoted in Lindsay, p.210), but that she should not excel in any way that would call attention to herself. He forced his wife to quit performing music when he married her, and was well known to disapprove of the opinionated Mrs. Gainsborough. It would not be too unreasonable to assume that Gainsborough himself would have shared some of these beliefs with his friend. With this sexist attitude, he would try to control female sexuality by killing her pheasant, so to speak. By rendering the pheasant powerless, Gainsborough could conquer his fear of the female genitalia. But he is unable to even depict the dead bird—he is impotent.
Disregarding the pheasant, Gainsborough does not even try to complete Francis’ dress. He obviously has trouble dealing with the female pelvic area. Gainsborough himself was a newlywed at this time; might we conclude that he had a fear of the unknown? Whatever the answer may be to the mysterious missing pheasant, this aspect of Gainsborough’s art is a field waiting for discussion. It is easy to conclude that the traditionalists would not want to discover that he was a misogynist or worse, a latent homosexual. But a postmodern author, such as Ronald Paulson with his Freudian background, would jump at the chance to discover sex and intrigue in British landscape painting.
I must admit that I was pleased to discover that sex and intrigue can be an integral part of Gainsborough. In fact, with postmodernism, sex and intrigue can be points for discussion in virtually any topic. Such is the beauty of postmodernism. While I disapprove of UCSC’s choice to exclude traditional writings on Gainsborough, one might notice that I have not agreed with or discussed deeply anything the traditional writings have said. Rather, it is what they have not said that has interested me. But it was necessary to see the standard texts to know what they omitted. If being a postmodernist is, as Whitley disdainfully described the practice, simply rearranging old material with a new system of organization; and if UCSC has truly trained me to be a postmodernist; then I must necessarily have access to the traditional texts in order to practice what I have been taught in theory. Postmodernism may be making fun of traditionalism, but no one will get the punchline unless they understand the joke.

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