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Gainsborough's Cottage Doors: An Insight into the Artist’s Last Decade

Gainsborough's Cottage Doors: An Insight into the Artist’s Last Decade


The work of Thomas Gainsborough is characterized by a series of subjects that preoccupied him, which with time he was able to hone and define more clearly. Inspired by the recent identification of a third autograph version of his masterpiece The Cottage Door, this book examines the significance of the multiple versions of designs that the artist produced during the 1780s. It demonstrates that without the pressure of exhibiting his work annually at the Academy and without a string of sitters waiting for their finished portraits, Gainsborough’s work became more personal, more thoughtful and searching.

A study of his unconventional background, training and early development as an artist provides some clues as to why Gainsborough came to use painting in this very personal way. It was not until the 1780s, however, that his creative energies really changed in this direction. He had never been happy with the constraints of the Royal Academy and he was at odds with the dictatorial opinions promoted by its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. In removing himself from the Academy he cast off the shackles of producing paintings, competitive in their design and colouring, which inhibited the artist’s natural goals of likeness, subtlety and balanced tonality. He could now be choosey about the commissions he accepted, paint for his own pleasure and satisfy his own curiosity. He began to turn to portrait compositions that he had developed and refined over a number of years. With subtle alterations they could be made suitable for a variety of sitters. The margin between ‘fancy’ pictures and portraits became blurred and the categorization of some of these paintings changed while they were on the easel. Always finding composition difficult, rather than begin something new he often revisited earlier designs that had pleased him. He would paint them again and make slight changes of tone and emphasis that would radically change the concept and intention of the design.


Richly illustrated with beautiful new photography, this study of the last phase of the artist’s work is a totally fresh interpretation of not only the Cottage Door theme, which Gainsborough revisited over nearly 20 years, but other key late works such as Mrs Sheridan and Diana and Acteon. The subject matter in some of these late work veers towards the autobiographical and provides an invaluable insight into the artist’s personality and his very worrying concerns.

  • Hugh Belsey

    120 pages, paperback

    260 x 216 mm, 80 colour illus.
    ISBN: 978 1 907372 50 6

  • Exhibition

    Revisiting Gainsborough’s Cottage Door

    Huntington Library and Art Collections (San Marino, California)

    1 June – December 2013

  • About the author

    Hugh Belsey is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art with the task of writing the definitive catalogue of portraits by Thomas Gainsborough.

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