Have you ever thought that you might like to have your portrait painted by an artist? Maybe just you or maybe you and your partner. How do you visualise your pose and the setting for this great work of art? What do you want to portray to the viewers about yourself and your partner. Obviously you want to be seen in the best light and bring out all your beauty but how will you get the artist to communicate to us, the viewer, your status and wealth? Should the background of this portrait be just a simple plain coloured background so that it in no way detracts from your presence in the painting. You of course will wear the most expensive clothes to give the air of wealth whether it is true or not. Maybe you will be a little more daring and have your prized possession in the background of your portrait. You could be painted standing by your expensive car or you could stand in front of your house but of course if your house is of little value then it may detract from your image, for remember even though the camera may never lie, the artist and his paintbrush can certainly mask the truth.
So that brings me nicely to today’s My Daily Art Display which is a portrait of a wealthy couple on their huge estate. The portrait is simply entitled Mr and Mrs Andrews and was painted by the great English landscape and portrait Thomas Gainsborough in 1749. This was one of Gainsborough’s earliest portraits. The subjects of the painting are the English country squire, Robert Andrews and his wife Frances Mary, née Carter who he had married a year earlier and this work by Gainsborough was commissioned to celebrate the marriage. Both bride and bridegroom came from wealthy families. Robert’s family owned land on the Essex-Sussex border around the town of Bulmer. Frances was the daughter of William Carter a wealthy cloth merchant who owned a large estate in the parish of Bulmer and the joining in matrimony of the two meant the coming together of two large estates. This is a portrait, which not only celebrates the coming together of the young lovers, but demonstrates that this union has brought about the considerable wealth of property they now jointly owned.
This delightful portrait of the pair posing on their country estate in the summer sunshine is full of charm. The church in the background is St Peter’s, Sudbury, and the tower to the left is that of Lavenham church. The gold and green of their fertile fields and their well-kept estate is beautifully painted. It is interesting to note that this type of portraiture was known as “outdoor conversation pieces”. The term was given to portraits showing two or more full length figures engaged in conversation or other polite social activity and were generally part of a domestic or landscape painting. This idea of having a country scene as a backdrop to a portrait probably came from the French and their fêtes galantes, which was a French term used to describe a type of painting which first came to prominence with Antoine Watteau but unlike outdoor conversation pieces, they normally featured fictional characters.
Let us now have a close look at the painting. The first thing that strikes me is that although it is a portrait, the landscape take up more than half of the space of this oil on canvas painting. Maybe the couple wanted to subtly highlight their wealth by having their vast estate featured as a backdrop to their portrait. This you must remember is not an idealistic landscape concocted to enhance the painting. This is the real thing. This is their own estate which was a joining together of the two lands of their parents. This vast estate was now a celebration of their union.
Robert Andrews stands straight. His faithful gun-dog at his side looking lovingly up at his Master. There is an air of relaxed nonchalance about his pose. He looks to have “not a care in the world”. His hand is in his pocket but even so it is a somewhat formal pose. His frock-coat is unbuttoned at the top and by the way he holds his hunting gun under his arm, is to have us believe he has just returned from a shoot. He is, by depiction, one of the landed gentry and the way he is at ease shows he is happy to show off his good fortune and his possessions, namely his large estate and of course, his wife. We can have no doubt of his standing in society. His character and future are like the well established oak tree which they shelter under – solid. It is easy for us to understand that his wife will want for nothing
The genteel Mrs Andrews sits primly next to her husband on an ornate Rococo-style bench. She was about eighteen at the time of this portrait. She is dressed in her finest clothes and her demeanour, like that of her husband, oozes wealth and respectability. She, in some ways, appears doll-like in her bright blue hooped skirt and pointed silver-coloured shoes. I am sure the couple didn’t pose for the artist in the fields of their estate and this painting is likely to have been carried out in the artist’s studio and Gainsborough may have used tailor’s dummies to hang their clothes on and then later gone out to study the landscape of their estate. Still I am sure the couple were happy with this work of art and it would have pleased them to see how it portrays them and their land. There has been some conjecture as to whether the original intention was to have Mrs Andrews hold a book or maybe a brace of pheasants which her husband had just shot as there seems to be a space on her lap left unfilled. It was also surmised that the space was left empty in order that, at a later date, one of her children may have been added, sitting on her lap.
So the couple had everything. Sadly however, after giving her husband nine children, Mary Andrews died at the relatively young age of forty-eight. Robert Andrews went on to re-marry and lived a long life surviving to the good old age of eighty. They now rest together, side by side, in the graveyard of Saint Andrews in Bulmer.