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The Vagabond

"We are all going to heaven . . ."


In 1727 a father who was a woolen crape-maker by trade and a fencer by hobby and a mother who excelled in flower-painting had a child. His name was Thomas Gainsborough, and he was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, England. This lad early showed a natural talent for drawing; by the age of ten he had sketched every interesting tree and cottage around Sudbury. In his uncle's grammar school he filled his textbooks with caricatures of the schoolmaster.

"Scheming Jack," his brother, was also gifted. As a boy he made a pair of copper wings and attempted to fly; he also invented a cradle which rocked itself. To escape schooling and go a sketching, Tom himself proved resourceful. Once he successfully forged his father's signature to a note which asked the schoolmaster to "Give Tom a holiday." When his father discovered the fraud, he shook his head and prophesied: "Tom will one day be hanged." But when he saw how he had spent the stolen time, he changed his mind: "Tom will be a genius."

Having showed that he could draw likenesses of living people well, by sketching the face of a man whom he caught in the act of robbing his father's pear orchard, Tom at fourteen was sent off to London to study painting. In four years he was supporting himself. At twenty he fell in love with Margaret Burr, a young lady of confused origin who possessed many charms, including an annuity of $1000. After painting her portrait, he married her and settled in Ipswich.

Desiring to advance his reputation, the impulsive Tom took his family to Bath in 1759, then the center of fashionable wealth. Soon his studio became thronged; he raised his prices for half-lengths and had Sterne and Richardson, Quin and Garrick sit for him. Within fifteen years he was in London, prosperous, giving away his sketches and landscapes, dividing the court favor with the American West and that of the city with Reynolds. Among others he painted, sometimes with brushes on sticks six feet long, Sheridan, Burke, Johnson, Franklin, Canning, Lady Montagu, Clive, and Blackstone. Like his more than 300 paintings his was a warm personality--lively, generous, natural.

Tom's greatest rival was Sir Joshua Reynolds, head of the Royal Academy, to which he also belonged. Their relations had always been strained. Tom was unreasonable in the matter of hanging his own pictures; he ignored his colleagues' invitations and never repaid their visits. Reynolds, on the other hand, treated him with great friendliness and respect, terming him the "first landscape painter in Europe."

From his deathbed Gainsborough finally wrote his gratitude to Reynolds and asked gently for a reconciliation. Sir Joshua came, and he heard Tom whisper his dying words: "We are all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the party." Some months afterwards Reynolds addressed the Royal Academy on the genius of Thomas Gainsborough. It was a weighty analysis, and very gallant. . . . .

Tonight, in the New Lecture Hall, at eight o'clock, the Vagabond will hear Dr. Chauncey Brewster Tinker, Sterling Professor of English Literature at Yale University, speak on "Gainsborough: The Return to Nature," in one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures.

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