Arts Arts Editor Arts Reviews Muse

Lost Gainsborough: York Art Gallery's Latest Exhibition

Cara Lee explores the collection of newly attributed works of one of Britain's most acclaimed painters.

Article Thumbnail

Image Credit: Charlotte Graham

York Art Gallery is well-known for its major exhibitions, such as the recent Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years installation.  Once more, the gallery takes the biscuit with its significant new collection, Young Gainsborough: Rediscovered Landscape Drawings.  The exhibition displays 25 landscape drawings, which in the last decade have been reattributed as works of Thomas Gainsborough, and not Sir Edwin Landseer – as has been thought since1874.

How can such vast numbers of works be wrongly attributed, and for so long, you ask?

The evidence is admittedly deceptive, making them seem almost conclusively Landseer’s.  Firstly, in terms of approach, style and colour, the drawings are distinctively Landseer-esque; though he is most well-known for his paintings of animals, as well as the lion sculptures framing the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London, a quick Google search shows you the similarities between Landseer’s sketches and those displayed in the Young Gainsborough exhibition.  Moreover, the drawings were originally acquired by Queen Victoria, from Landseer’s own studio, and have since then been housed at Windsor Castle, bound in a book entitled Sketches by Sir E Landseer.

Enough to make anyone think they’re Landseer’s, eh?

Anyone, that is, except art historian Lindsay Stainton. Stainton saw that one of the sketches looked suspiciously like Gainsborough’s most celebrated landscape painting, Cornard Wood, and made the connection that in fact, the drawings were all Gainsborough’s.

Cornard Wood depicts a forest two miles from Gainsborough’s childhood home and, for the first time since their creation in Gainsborough’s studio in 1748, the draft for Cornard Wood and the painting itself hang side by side.

The techniques Gainsborough used for his works are evident in the Study for Cornard Wood. Remember the gridding technique you were taught at school? Gainsborough was a pro at using it. By gridding a smaller image, an artist can transfer and enlarge the scene onto another material – in this case, the 61-inch-wide beast of a canvas Gainsborough chose for this pastoral scene. Small traces of paint on the Study show that whilst he was working, Gainsborough kept the smaller, original image close to hand.

Though Gainsborough is perhaps more known now for his portraits of upper-class society, his personal preference was for painting landscapes, making this exhibition all the more poignant. His love of his native Suffolk countryside is apparent in the sprawling rural works he created, but the exhibition also highlights the influence of other places and artists upon Gainsborough.  The low-lying flatlands of Suffolk are very similar to the expansive land in the Netherlands, and Gainsborough’s admiration of Dutch artists is demonstrated at York Art Gallery, with works by Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Wijnants, and Meindert Hobbema, Ruisdael’s apprentice. The likenesses in tone, subject and colour are easily seen. These 17th century Dutch landscapes not only provide an extra context and framework for Gainsborough’s own work and contemporary style, but add a historical, and slightly escapist element to the exhibition.

Much like with the Gallery’s recent exhibition examining the foundations of Grayson Perry’s works, this exploration of Gainsborough’s earlier works helps us understand his relationship to creating and later approach to landscapes. Rosie Razzall, Curator at the Royal Collection Trust, explained Gainsborough’s choice of material for his sketches is interesting, being cheap paper intended for wrapping. The slightly rough, coarse texture of the paper provided a good surface for chalk work, with some pages being employed for double-sided works.

The Gallery sets a more contemporary tone with the third room of the exhibition being, as Dr Beatrice Bertram informed me, an attempt to push the boundaries of different mediums, and respond to Gainsborough’s own views of the British pastoral. The third gallery debuts Clay, Peat, Cage by Jade Montserrat and Webb-Ellis, a trio of video performances exploring the North Yorkshire landscape. Montserrat also collaborated with the Teenage Art School and duo Practically Creative, to create their own artistic responses to the local landscapes.

Young Gainsborough: Rediscovered Landscape Drawings is a landmark exhibition, and well worth a visit to see the early works of one of Britain’s most prolific and acclaimed artists. It is open in York until 13 February 2022, before then moving to the National Gallery of Ireland and Nottingham Castle throughout 2022. With this major exhibition, York Art Gallery continues to set itself apart as a significant force in the art world, and it is sure to prevail next year too with the opening of Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love and Legacy in early March.

Latest in Arts