AN EXHIBITION of landscapes by an artist known for his portraits has revealed lots more varied work than Gainsborough is normally known for.
Gainsborough painted his 18th century portraits for a living, but apparently once said he was “sick of portraits” and wanted to paint landscapes “in quietness and ease”. The exhibition Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations at Compton Verney art gallery is the first for 50 years devoted to his landscapes, and brings together lots of works from public and private collections.
They are arranged thematically to look at the different subjects of his work, and include drawings, oils and prints. Stylistically, they differ quite a lot over time. In the early ones there are small, naturalistic landscapes, and in the final room there are much larger works, with dramatic use of light and shade.
His River Landscape with Sheep from 1785 is an etching and includes a landscape with a person dwarfed by huge sheep. In another etching, Wooded Landscape with Cattle Crossing a Bridge of 1780, huge cows cross over a tiny bridge, with a tower in the background, with the work very soft and fluid, a contrast to the much more jagged scenery of Mountain Landscape with a Boat on a Lake or River, 1775-80.
A more idealised approach to poor rural life is apparent in the Girl with Pigs, 1781-82, showing a tiny sad-eyed girl in ragged clothing watching over pigs while they eat, taking the eye away from the heavily wooded landscape behind.
In other works the people are almost incidental, providing tiny markers of scale for the landscape, which also seems to show some influence of Claude Lorraine. In Mountainous Landscape with Shepherds and Sheep: Romantic Landscape, 1780-85, the subtitle seems to give it away, as darkness falls over much of the land, throwing light only on the sheep and their guardian in the bottom left of the oilwork. It’s dramatic and very romanticised.
Landscape with a View of Distant Village, 1750 is very detailed – the group in the foreground might be small but includes fabulous detail such as a dog barking on the riverside, a cow wandering off and some possible courting going on. The watering Place is another classically romantic landscape, with the varied-coloured light in the background, and the cows lit up at the front.
It’s another excellent exhibition which, along with Into the Light, also on at Compton Verney, makes it a definitely worthwhile trip out.
* A shorter version of this review featured in the Coventry Telegraph on April 27.