FEATURE: Art historian details 14-year project to catalogue more than 1,000 Thomas Gainsborough portraits into two-volume book
When Hugh Belsey began his lifelong link with artist Thomas Gainsborough, he would happily transport the 18th century master’s works in the back of his car.
Either that, or catch the train from London to Suffolk with a carefully-packaged drawing under his arm.
Much has changed in the museum world since then. Such down to earth methods would be frowned upon now.
But there can be few people – if any – who know as much about Gainsborough as Hugh.
Almost 40 years studying the Suffolk-born artist’s life and work has made him one of the world’s foremost experts.
For the past 14 years, he has been immersed in the massive task of cataloguing all Gainsborough’s 1,000-plus portraits for a definitive book on the subject.
Thomas Gainsborough grew up in Sudbury, and rose from unsophisticated Suffolk boy to be one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the 18th century.
George III and Queen Charlotte were among his subjects. But he also loved music and the theatre – and his portraits of the day’s biggest stars act as a who’s who of the Georgian stage.
Hugh has contributed descriptions of his paintings to a new book, Gainsborough and the Theatre.
But his knowledge of art is far from single track. His expertise covers all 18th century artists, and he also enjoys teaching.
Englishmen on The Grand Tour is another keen interest and the subject of his current series of illustrated talks.
Hugh grew up in Hemel Hempstead and went to a secondary modern school that became a comprehensive.
“I remember, when I was about 14, being taken to the National Gallery on a school trip and being fascinated by the pictures there,” he recalls.
“After that, I went up to London a great deal by myself and got to know the art collections.
“In sixth form, I found out you could do an art history degree, so I taught myself the A-level syllabus, and persuaded the art teacher to mark my essays.”
He did his degree at Manchester University. In 1981, he became curator at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, the artist’s birthplace museum.
At the time, Gainsborough was not his specialist subject. If he had taken a job elsewhere, it might never have happened.
“The house was a study centre for the artist, but there was not a lot of expertise, so I thought I should get some,” he says.
When he arrived, all Gainsborough works at the museum were borrowed and he worked hard to build up its own collection.
“We bought our first Gainsborough in 1984,” he says. “By the time I left in 2004, we had 25 drawings, a dozen or so paintings, and deals set up for more. That’s the aspect of my time there I’m most proud of.
“Museums have become much more expensive to run in the last 15 years. Standards of moving things about are much more stringent.
“I have to admit to having Gainsboroughs in the back of my car many times, and carrying drawings under my arm coming back from London on the train. That would be viewed as totally unprofessional now.”
He is often called to give his opinion on pictures thought to be by Gainsborough and, in 2014, he appeared as an expert witness in the TV series Fake or Fortune.
Long experience of studying an artist’s work means he can tell instantly if a picture is wrong.
“It’s like looking at your mother’s writing. You know precisely if it’s right or not,” said Hugh.
But an owner might not be happy with what they would see as a snap judgment.
“I remember speaking to a very distinguished art historian who had been asked to attribute a Constable,” he recalls.
“As he went in, he caught sight of the painting from the corner of his eye and thought ‘oh no, this is going to be embarrassing’.”
Left alone with the picture, the expert read a newspaper for half an hour before delivering the disappointing news.
Hugh’s project on Gainsborough’s portraits was funded for several years by the Paul Mellon Centre, which supports research into British art.
It meant extensive travel in the UK and US to see as many original paintings as possible.
The book, which will be published in February, also includes ‘fancy pictures’, like paintings of animals, and Gainsborough’s copies of old masters.
“Portraits in those times were symbols of people, rather than photographic images,” says Hugh.
“In some, you will see he had empathy with the sitter. With others, he was just doing a job.”
And in the way a photo today might be airbrushed, some wanted their flaws removed.
“I think he got very bored with people who were self-important, who wanted the 18th century equivalent of botox,” says Hugh. “But he was always known to produce a very good likeness.”
Hugh says Gainsborough was hard-working, likeable and charming. “He worked very quickly, and didn’t have studio assistants, so he did all the painting himself,” he says.
“I think he was very mercurial and his conversation would have been very witty indeed.
“He would probably think it was very inappropriate that I’ve done so much work on him.”
With the two volume book completed, Hugh will be moving on to new projects.
But he is likely to keep it in the family by focusing next on Thomas’ nephew and fellow artist Gainsborough Dupont.