‘Remember me this way’ ... portrait coup for Sudbury

Gainsborough House director Mark Bills with fa amous self-portrait of Thomas Gainsborough, which has been loaned by the national gallery ANL-140826-071732009
Gainsborough House director Mark Bills with fa amous self-portrait of Thomas Gainsborough, which has been loaned by the national gallery ANL-140826-071732009

Snapping a “selfie” has become a 21st century obsession – but a visit to Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury will prove the idea is far from new.

Artists have been staring into mirrors to capture images of themselves for hundreds of years.

But for Thomas Gainsborough, there was only one he wanted the world to see.

Now, for the first time, the picture that shows how one of Britain’s greatest portrait painters hoped to be remembered can be seen in his home town.

The self-portrait, dating from 1787, has gone on show in the house where he was born.

“He always said he didn’t want to leave many images of himself,” said Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough’s House museum and gallery.

“But we know from a letter that this was the one he wanted people to remember.

“It is one of his great paintings and we have always wanted to show it here.

“It’s a particularly penetrating portrait, and quite a revealing one. I suppose you could say it’s the 18th century version of a selfie.”

The picture – on loan from the Royal Academy – was painted for the artist’s close friend, musician Karl Friedrich Abel.

It is on show in an upstairs gallery alongside Gainsborough’s portrait of his friend, a renowned composer and player of the viola da gamba.

“The story is quite sad,” said Mark. “Abel died before he could give him the picture, so he kept it.”

A year later, the artist himself was dead from throat cancer, aged 61.

“After his death, one of his daughters gave the portrait to the Royal Academy,” explained Mark.

“And that’s quite ironic because he had fallen out badly with the academy in the last years of his life.

”Gainsborough upset the powers-that-be, including RA president Joshua Reynolds, by demanding all his royal portraits should get prime positions in the 1784 exhibition.

“They used to cover the walls with pictures, and some got what they called ‘skyed’, or ‘floored’ – hung either too high or too low,” said Mark.

“Gainsborough insisted all his portraits should be hung at eye level or he would withdraw all his pictures from the show and never exhibit there again.

“They called his bluff. But he did finally make up with Joshua Reynolds on his death bed.”

The self-portrait can be seen at Gainsborough’s House until January 2015.

Meanwhile, the exhibition Rembrandt the Printmaker is also on show until October.

Opening hours of the museum and galleries, with exhibits, including Gainsborough paintings and artefacts from its own collection, are 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday, and 11am to 5pm on Sundays.