FEATURE: Cloud of dust signals new era for National Centre for Thomas Gainsborough project in Sudbury
The plans are drawn, a derelict building has demolished, and funds are steadily climbing the steep path towards a multi-million pound target.
This autumn builders will move in to start turning the Suffolk birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough – one of Britain’s greatest artists – into a national centre to celebrate his legacy.
As dust settled over the old labour exchange knocked down to make way for a major extension to Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, director Mark Bills allowed himself a sigh of relief.
Six years of hope, visionary thinking, planning, fund-raising, and sheer hard graft were at last coming together.
“Something that was inconceivable a few years ago is actually starting to happen,” he said. “This is a moment to stop and look back and think we have come a long way.
“It has taken a lot of hard work and commitment and support from everybody involved.”
The extension will have three floors of galleries and community space, including a cafe and shop . . . allowing visitors to enjoy the original house and museum, being renovated as part of the plans, for its historical features.
Gainsborough’s work will be showcased in a special gallery with walls lined with silk woven in Sudbury.
“We are building this for posterity. It’s hugely, hugely exciting,” Mark says.
But he is clear that looking for national prestige at the cost of local backing is not the way to succeed.
“Gainsborough was a local boy and an international figure. That’s what our galleries will reflect. We’ll be locally-rooted and outward looking.”
The project will deliver the world’s foremost centre for the promotion and study of Gainsborough, and space to exhibit work by outstanding artists past and present.
But it will also encourage local artists, promote education, and boost the area’s economy by bringing in more visitors.
The house where Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 has been a museum and gallery for almost 60 years.
It is owned by the Gainsborough’s House Society, overseen by a board of trustees, and run by Mark and a team of staff and volunteers.
Over the years it has built up a collection of more than 60 works by Gainsborough, plus hundreds by other 18th century artists.
Mark, who became director just over six years ago, soon saw the potential for a much bigger, brighter future.
He moved from a gallery dedicated to Victorian artist George Frederic Watts where he also oversaw major expansion.
“When I came to Gainsborough’s House it was in a very bad way financially,” he says. “It was on a downward spiral, but we have reversed that.
“Things don’t stand still, you move forward or backward and we wanted to be moving forward.
“Our main issue was space to increase what was on offer to visitors and the amount of earned income.
“A lot of people weren’t convinced at the beginning. They didn’t see, with the organisation Gainsborough’s House was, that it could have such ambitious plans.
“We showed it was possible through support and growth. We grew our visitor numbers, brought in a lot more income, and got some high profile figures who came to see it as a special place.
“One of the earliest was Loyd Grossman who was a huge support. A lot of people in the public eye backed it and it snowballed.”
Gainsborough’s House now has numerous high-profile backers. Sculptor and former fashion designer Nicole Farhi is currently showing her work there.
“Gainsborough is one of those wonderful figures that will draw people in. He was a great character,” said Mark.
Finding space to expand into, however, was a problem. They looked at converting a next-door property but that wasn’t feasible.
Then thoughts turned to the derelict labour exchange at the back of the House, which was eventually bought and donated by Babergh District Council.
“We are very grateful to them. If that land had been sold we would have had nowhere to go,” said Mark.
The extension, designed by acclaimed London architects ZMMA, will be built with bricks made in Bulmer near Sudbury, and local flint, with a copper roof.
A non-corrodable ‘mattress’ under the building will combat vibration from looms at the nearby Vanners silk mill. The labour exchange used to rattle, Mark says.
The top floor landscape studio, with panoramic views of the countryside Gainsborough painted, will also be an education space and available to hire. There will be a community gallery with artists in residence.
Total bill for the project is around £9 million, which includes a £1 million endowment fund for future costs. Gainsborough’s House itself has to raise £4 million.
“We have had enormous help from the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund which has given us over £5 million,” said Mark.
“We still have money to find. We’re going to lose income because we’ll have to close this October for 18 months. We expect to reopen in the spring or summer of 2021.
Donors are currently being invited to ‘buy a brick’ for £20 to help towards the project.
When builders move in staff will decamp to offices next door. The House’s art collection will also move out ... on an exchange trip to Russia.
“We are sending them to Moscow, to the Pushkin Museum of fine Art,” said Mark. “All our major pieces are going there.”
When the project is finished the Pushkin will loan some of its own masterpieces for exhibition in Sudbury.
Mark admits getting the project off the ground has had its stressful moments. “There are a lot of plates to keep spinning, and you encounter problems.
“I’m the pivot for the whole thing, but I’ve been through it before with a £12 million project at the Watts Gallery, and I learned a lot from that.”