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Gainsborough, the most English artist of all

Blog | By Harry Mount | Nov 21, 2018

A charming Gainsborough show opens at the National Portrait Gallery tomorrow. 'Gainsborough's Family Album' has dozens of pictures of his extended family.

But the real stars of the show are his daughters. They're shown in childhood - as here in The Painter`s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (1756) - and then as they grow up into willowy, pretty young women.

The pictures could hardly be more English. Take the setting in this picture: the thick, tangled, disordered - but unthreatening - wildness of the Suffolk countryside; roiling clouds in the background, with the suggestion of impending rain; the muddy path; the crumpled dresses which show an indifference to neatness and scrupulous cleanliness. Then there are the girls' expressions: slightly unsure of themselves; shy and diffident, with a concealed excitement at the butterfly chase.

Gainsborough has none of the showy magnificence of, say, a Botticelli; or the controlled beauty of Bellini; or the flamboyance of van Dyck, who he much admired; or the racy elegance of a Fragonard or a Boucher. He could only be English in his domestic, appealing, low-key, empathetic way.

In 1955, the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner tried to isolate some of these national qualities in a lecture called The Englishness of English Art. If you really want to define that Englishness, go to the new Gainsborough show.