Gainsborough’s Woodmen

John Barrell

  • Thomas Gainsborough by John Hayes
    Tate Gallery, 160 pp, £4.75, October 1980, ISBN 0 905005 72 4

A year or so before his death in 1788, Thomas Gainsborough made a series of chalk sketches of ‘a poor smith worn out by labour’. In some of them, the smith appears as a woodman, carrying or sitting upon a bundle of faggots; and though woodmen appear in a large number of his drawings and paintings from the 1750s onwards, these particular sketches seem originally to have been made in preparation for what he was to regard as his greatest picture, ‘The Woodman’, executed in 1787 and destroyed by fire in 1810. An engraving survives; and though it is dangerous to think one can say much about a painting by consulting an engraving of it, it seems not unlikely that had the painting also survived we would nowadays find that its sleeve-tugging sentimentality made it hard for us to endorse Gainsborough’s own estimate of it. It is the woodman’s expression, in particular, which embarrasses: his eyeballs rolled up towards heaven with a piety calculated to solicit, not simply a future reward in heaven, but a present one on earth. One can imagine those who saw the painting instinctively reaching for the small change in their breeches pocket.

Two of the sketches of this ‘poor smith’ are currently to be seen in the Gainsborough exhibition at the Tate. In one of them, the figure, his eyes again fixed steadfastly on heaven, is carrying a bundle of faggots by a method unusual to Gainsborough’s woodmen. Normally, they hoist the bundle on their shoulders: but this woodman has stuck a long pole at right angles into the bundle, so that the pole and bundle together complete the form of a rough cross; and this he carries by resting the long end of the pole on his shoulder in a way presumably intended to resemble Christ on the road to Calvary. The image thus speaks to us of the poverty of Christ, and of the burdens of a life of pious poverty, in a way that may again seem a too obviously salutary reminder to the consciences of rich and poor alike. If this is an idea Gainsborough was trying out for a full-scale painting, it’s not very surprising that he rejected it: the sympathy of the polite was certainly open to be engaged by such an ‘affective’ image of the labouring poor – but it is harder to imagine an Anglican public similarly willing to be moved by so very Papist an image of Christ-as-underdog.

The more one looks at the generous selection of Gainsborough’s drawings in this exhibition, the more one seems to be invited to speculate about what – for cultural rather than for technical reasons – he could not paint. The question is raised again by the second woodman sketch in the exhibition. Here he sits on a bundle of faggots: his eyes, again, look upward but now seem focused, not on the infinite heavens, but, more probably, on an imagined interlocutor beyond the left-hand edge of the paper. Below the waist, his body expresses a comfortable repose; above it, an alert engagement in what is being said – raising an eyebrow, leaning forward in an attitude of interest, his left arm not resting by his side, but jutting out from his body in such a way as to confirm that sense of alertness. Compared with the image of Christ-as-woodman or woodman-as-Christ, this figure is a social being, and his body has a relaxed vigour which seems, when one remembers other contemporary images of the rural poor, strikingly unusual. It is an image which, I suggest, could not have appeared in the formal, public medium of late 18th-century oil-painting: of paintings intended for the showrooms of the houses of the polite, where the choice of pictures displayed the moral and political, as well as the aesthetic values the owners wished to be seen upholding. But if, in oil, there would have been something unsafe about it, this is not because it directly challenged the notion of what the ‘good’ poor should look like, which the polite expected to find represented in oil-painting, but because it did nothing to confirm it. It simply failed to address itself to the public moral preoccupations of the rich, who expected that in oil-paintings the rural poor should take care to be seen to observe the virtues that had been defined as proper to them.

That this woodman may have been imagined by Gainsborough as engaged in conversation, with someone more immediately responsive than God is suggested by his further appearance in the exhibition, seated in the bottom right of a landscape-drawing, in roughly the same attitude as in the previous drawing. Here, he is apparently conversing with a mother holding a baby, while another child stands to her left. The sketch seems to have been conceived of as preparatory to the grand landscape or fancy-picture. ‘Peasant smoking at a Cottage Door’ of 1788 also currently at the Tate, and the transformations that have occurred in the figure of the woodman, as he appears in the sketch I have just described, and as he appears now as a figure in a landscape, and in a future landscape-oil, tell us a good deal about how Gainsborough thought of figures in landscapes, and about what could, and could not, be exhibited in oil. To begin with, all the figures have been treated more sketchily, are less finished, than the landscape; the diagonal, angular, dead or dying tree beneath which they sit or stand, the darker passage of scrub and wood behind them on their left, both have a markedly greater degree of definition than the figures, and this is made all the more salient by the fact that the figures occupy, and the woodman himself is, the lightest area of the picture apart from the sky. The generalities of the woodman’s original attitude have been preserved, only slightly altered, but the energy has gone: not perhaps because Gainsborough has chosen to expel it from the landscape, but because he is not concerned, at this stage of the conception, with the nature of the figures he is to portray, only with the positions they are to occupy in relation to the whole composition. The faces, in particular, of both man and woman are almost entirely illegible – the rough chalk marks suggest a little of their features but nothing of their expressions. The comparison of the two sketches seems to confirm Gainsborough’s own account of his attitude to figures in landscapes, that they were ‘to create a little business for the Eye to be drawn from the Trees in order to return to them with more glee’. But the comparison may say something more: that if Gainsborough is now beginning to think of the woodman as about to take his place in a landscape in oil, he will have to be accommodated, as in the other sketch he certainly is not to what is demanded of a representation of the poor.

The transformation of the landscape-sketch into the finished oil seems to confirm both conclusions. On the one hand, the figures are much diminished in the ‘Peasant smoking at a Cottage Door’: that is to say though they still occupy one of the lightest areas of the picture, that area and they themselves are much smaller, proportionately, in the oil than in the sketch, so that the landscape itself commands our attention still more than it does in the sketch. On the other hand, the figures and their immediate setting have been altered in a way which represents them, now, in an evidently moral light. The aged woodman has become a burly peasant, smoking contentedly in an evening light, his duties ended for the day. The originally almost featureless woman has become strikingly beautiful and youthful, which is the more remarkable given that she has an additional child. The group is displayed in front of a thatched cottage, so that we take them now to be a family, and a well-scrubbed brass pan leans against the wall of the cottage. If one makes much inquiry into how the good poor were expected, and required, to appear and to behave in the 1780s it becomes apparent that this is a very different, and much safer, image of the poor than was the original sketch of the seated woodman.

The group now represents a domestic ideal dear to those who wrote about the vices and misfortunes of the poor. The pleasure the peasant takes in this hour of recreation is to be understood as having been earned by the labour he has earlier been performing; he may be drinking ale, but that, too, is allowable in that he drinks it at home, and not as the ‘bad’ poor do, in the alehouse, where they gather to waste the money they should be using to support their families, and to complain about the injustice of their condition. The woman has turned her face away from the woodman, whom she had been looking at in the sketch, and now gazes at her children; her beauty attracts a feeling of benevolent sympathy, while her motherly concern, and the pan she has been scouring, assure us of her virtue. This is now an image of domestic contentment and of peace well-merited; and if, by comparison, the original image of the seated woodman was less ‘safe’, so that it could not survive translation into oil, this was not, of course, because his rest was represented as unearned, but because the energy of his attitude did not suggest that it had been earned: it simply did not engage the question at all, at a time when the polite demanded that, in works for public display, the question be not only engaged but answered.

This seems an unusually difficult exhibition, when compared, for example, with the grander displays of Turner and Constable at the Tate in the Seventies. A large number of the most famous paintings are missing, whether because they were unavailable for loan, are easily visible elsewhere in London or in the Tate itself, or (as I suspect is often the case) because Hayes has deliberately chosen to exclude a good number of them in favour of works largely or entirely unfamiliar. As a result, there are fewer opportunities than we might have expected for us to transfer our thoughts about pictures we think we know onto those we have not seen before. The emphasis is where Gainsborough would have wanted it, on the landscapes, though by no means exclusively so; and on the range and quality of his drawings as much as of his paintings. The selection, challenging as it is and thoroughly intelligent, could only have been made by Hayes, and it offers an opportunity to reflect, not only on Gainsborough’s art, but on Hayes’s past and continuing researches on the artist.

That is not a point I imagine Hayes himself would want to see laboured. The catalogue he has produced is disarmingly reticent and self-effacing, as scholarly and informative as we would expect from him, but leaving the paintings and his choice of them to prompt us to do much of the work which, in another catalogue, would have been attempted by a critical introduction. His own introduction is straightforwardly biographical, and he points out that, if we want to look them up, he has written critical and art-historical accounts of Gainsborough elsewhere. If we do look them up, however, we’ll find a similar lack of critical display, on the part of a critic himself too aware of the variety of Gainsborough’s work to be able to discuss it in the manner of the reviewer who claimed to be able to locate, without much sign of hesitation, where ‘the true source of Gainsborough’s imaginative strength’ is to be found. The works themselves, the selection of them, and Hayes’s writing, ask us to look and think more carefully than that.