The York Art Gallery is well known for its major exhibitions, such as the recent Grayson Perry: the pre-therapy years installation. Once again, the gallery takes the cookie with its significant new collection, Young Gainsborough: drawings of landscapes rediscovered. The exhibition features 25 landscape drawings, which over the past decade have been reassigned as works by Thomas Gainsborough, not Sir Edwin Landseer – as has been believed since 1874.
How can such a large number of works be wrongly attributed, and for so long, you ask?
The evidence is admittedly misleading, making it almost definitely seem Landseer’s. First, in terms of approach, style and color, the designs are uniquely Landseer; although he is best known for his animal paintings, 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 exposure. Additionally, the designs were originally acquired by Queen Victoria, in Landseer’s own studio, and have since been kept at Windsor Castle, bound in a book called Sketches by Sir E Landseer.
Enough for someone to think they’re from Landseer, eh?
Anyone, that is, except art historian Lindsay Stainton. Stainton saw that one of the sketches oddly resembled Gainsborough’s most famous landscape painting, Cornard wood, and made the connection that in fact the designs were all by Gainsborough.
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 Cornard wood and the painting itself hang side by side.
The techniques used by Gainsborough for his works are evident in the Study for Cornard Wood. Do you remember the grid technique you were taught at school? Gainsborough was a pro to use it. By crisscrossing a smaller image, an artist can transfer and magnify the scene onto another material – in this case, the 61-inch-wide beast from a canvas Gainsborough chose for this pastoral scene. Small traces of paint on the To study show that while he was working, Gainsborough kept the original smaller image handy.
Although Gainsborough is perhaps best known now for his portraits of bourgeois society, his personal preference was for landscape painting, which makes this exhibition all the more poignant. His love for his native Suffolk countryside is evident in the sprawling rural works he has created, but the exhibition also highlights the influence of other places and artists on Gainsborough. The Suffolk Lowlands are very similar to the vast lands of the Netherlands, and Gainsborough’s admiration for Dutch artists is demonstrated at the York Art Gallery, with works by Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Wijnants and Meindert Hobbema, the apprentice by Ruisdael. The similarities in tone, subject and color are easily seen. These 17th-century Dutch landscapes not only provide additional context and setting for Gainsborough’s contemporary work and style, but add a historic and slightly evasive element to the exhibit.
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 creation and his subsequent approach to landscapes. Rosie Razzall, curator at the Royal Collection Trust, explained that Gainsborough’s choice of material for her sketches is interesting because it is inexpensive paper for packaging. The slightly rough and coarse texture of the paper provided a good surface for chalk work, with some pages being used for double-sided work.
The gallery sets a more contemporary tone with the third room in the exhibition being, as Dr Beatrice Bertram told me, an attempt to push the boundaries of different mediums and respond to Gainsborough’s own views on British pastoral care. The third gallery makes its debut Clay, Peat, Cage by Jade Montserrat and Webb-Ellis, a video performance trio exploring the landscape of North Yorkshire. Montserrat also collaborated with the Teenage Art School and the Practically Creative duo, to create their own artistic responses to local landscapes.
Young Gainsborough: drawings of landscapes rediscovered is a historic exhibition and worth a visit to see the early works of one of Britain’s most prolific and acclaimed artists. It is open in York until February 13, 2022, before moving to the National Gallery of Ireland and Nottingham Castle throughout 2022. With this major exhibition, York Art Gallery continues to stand out as a significant force in the world of art, and it’s next year also with the opening of Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love and Legacy early March.