FEATURE: Sudbury historian delves into archives to uncover lost teenage years of famous artist Thomas Gainsborough
A commemorative event staged in 1988 marked a significant milestone for Sudbury’s most renowned artist, Thomas Gainsborough, which sparked the beginning of an enduring project for local historian Barry Wall.
To coincide with the bicentenary of his death that year, Gainsborough’s House museum and gallery showcased a collection of family portraits by the 18th century painter over a four-month exhibition.
The insightful display spurred Mr Wall, the founding member of Sudbury History Society, to carry out extensive research into Gainsborough’s teenage years – a critical period of his life during which he was sent to London to hone his artistic skills as a painter.
“It was a superb exhibition,” says Mr Wall. “I was intensely interested with it, but there was a gap – nobody knew how he left Sudbury and, ever since then, I have tried to sort this puzzle out about Gainsborough’s childhood.”
A number of scholars and historians have claimed that Gainsborough’s father, John, a wool merchant, who was declared bankrupt, had funded his son’s schooling in London, but Mr Wall has disputed the notion due to a lack of credibility.
“His father couldn’t have sent him anywhere – he was really incapable of anything,” he says.
Instead, it is understood that it was money bequeathed from his uncle that enabled Gainsborough to attend an art academy in London from the age of 13, where he gained vital skills before becoming an accomplished painter.
It has been suggested that Gainsborough’s uncle and cousin, both named Thomas, were murdered after they pursued someone who owed them money, with the pair receiving threatening letters.
The claim that there had been any foul play has been strongly rejected by Mr Wall, who believes the pair died from an infectious disease.
“There’s no evidence they were murdered,” he says. “It’s ridiculous to say so – they were very important people. It’s always been accepted that they died of small pox because there was an epidemic in Sudbury.”
Gainsborough’s aunt, Elizabeth Fenn, who was appointed as one of the executives of her husband, Thomas’ will, obeyed his instructions and ensured her nephew was well looked after and received a high standard of education.
“He wanted his nephew to be trained in something he could turn his hand to,” says Mr Wall.
“Thomas Gainsborough was not known as a painter at the time; he had some skill, which his uncle obviously recognised and thought something should be done about it, but he was at the tail end of a big family and was the last boy, which meant all the money had been spent on the others.”
Following their deaths, Mrs Fenn commissioned for a family vault to be built in the cemetery at All Saints’ Church in Sudbury, where her husband and son were buried, along with other family members.
“His widow was a very rich woman in her own right and she adored her husband,” says Mr Wall.
During his research, Mr Wall stumbled across a missing piece in the puzzle of Gainsborough’s crucial years in London.
He noticed that the collection of paintings, which had been created during the time in which Gainsborough was supposed to have been studying in the capital, reflected scenes of Sudbury.
“It was puzzling why there were so many paintings from that period which were of local views and local people – how was he painting them if he was in London?” said Mr Wall.
Keen to discover the reason behind the anomaly, Mr Wall analysed the deeds of properties in Sudbury where Gainsborough could have stayed on his return from London.
His research began with a cottage in Friars Street, which has been commemorated with a plaque on the assumption that the artist once lived there. This notion, however, has been questioned by Mr Wall due to key findings in his research.
“There is no evidence that Gainsborough lived in that cottage,” he says. “Everybody has been looking for that house; I looked at as many deeds of Friars Street as I could find and nowhere could I see Gainsborough paying rents or rates in Friars Street.”
After studying a map of that road, Mr Wall searched for houses which would have accommodated the scale of Gainsborough’s work and came across the Red House, a large Georgian house behind the cottage.
He looked into the records and was astonished to find that the house had been leased by Samuel Sabine, a solicitor who had consulted with Gainsborough’s uncle following the threatening letters he and his son had received.
“Everything fell into place,” says Mr Wall. “Gainsborough is not mentioned, but, through looking at these deeds, there was enough evidence in there for me to track down when the Red House was built and how it was leased out to various people. I realised that amongst the people involved was the attorney.”
The deeds of the house revealed that Mr Sabine had leased the property in the year that Gainsborough’s uncle had died.
A year after taking out a 12-year lease on the house, Mr Sabine subsequently died, leaving his family to cover the cost of the rent.
Drawing on the information he had uncovered, Mr Wall concluded that Gainsborough must have stayed at the property during the summer months when his art academy was closed in London.
“That’s how all those pictures were painted,” he said. “He moved in, he was a lodger at the Red House.
“He had to have somewhere to paint all those pictures; he had to have somewhere in Sudbury and it had to be a big place.”