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.

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