Saturday, May 8, 2010

one's own Brain

When, in the 1760s, the Earl of Hardwicke attempted to commission Gainsborough to paint a view for him, the artist replied:

Mr Gainsborough presents his Humble respects to Lord Hardwicke; and shall always think it an honor to be employ’d in any thing for his Lordship; but with regard to real Views from Nature in this Country, he has never seen any Place that affords a Subject equal to the poorest imitations of Gaspar or Claude. Paul Sanby is the only Man of Genius, he believes, who has employ’d his Pencil that Way – Mr G hopes Lord Hardwicke will not mistake his meaning, but if his Lordship wishes to have any thing tolerable of the name of G. the Subject altogether as well as the figures &c must be of his own Brain.

In this intriguing response, Gainsborough, who was still far from establishing himself among the elite painters of late 18th-century Britain, nevertheless makes it clear to Lord Hardwicke that he wishes to be regarded as a candidate for promotion to the premier league. He is not a servant painter; he has no eagerness to cater to the mistaken taste of a patron whatever the title he bears or the price he offers. He demands respect for the quality of his imagination, of his invention, and wishes to be compared with the great names of Italian landscape art, an ambition that would be compromised if he were to agree to paint views of real places in a country where the landscape is so obviously second-rate. Gainsborough of course loved the English countryside, as a place to walk in, to sketch in, perhaps to retire to – but not as a subject for painting. Individually, the hills, the trees, the roads, the ponds of England might be perfectly paintable, but only when reorganised into structures imagined by the artist’s ‘own Brain’. The name for an artist who would agree to paint the real places, however tame or scruffy, that Hardwicke’s ignorance might lead him to admire, was ‘Mr Sanby’. Sandby, Gainsborough concedes, is nevertheless a man of genius, but he seems to be pretending to believe that only in order to claim the same status for himself: among us men of genius, he implies, only Sandby is sufficiently obedient or mercenary to do what no man of genius should ever do.

John Barrell on Paul Sandby at the Royal Academy, LRB (mainly behind paywall -- it's at times like this that a gift subscription for one's mother really pays off)

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