Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Confound the Nose!": Thomas Gainsborough and Mrs Sarah Siddons

By Catherine Curzon

Thomas Gainsborough Self Portrait, 1758-9
Thomas Gainsborough Self Portrait, 1758-9
After I published my previous post on Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, I received a message from a reader who asked if I would consider a similar piece on another portrait of the famed actress. Since both theatre and art are two passions of mine, it was a suggestion that I was certainly not going to ignore and so, today, I turn my attention to Thomas Gainsborough's 1785 work, Portrait of Mrs Sarah Siddons.

By the time Sarah Siddons sat for Gainsborough in 1784, both were at the pinnacle of their respective fields. Just three years from his death, Thomas Gainsborough had painted some of the most illustrious names in England and though he never officially held the title of Principal Painter in Ordinary to King George III, he remained a particularly well-loved artist at the English court. Siddons, meanwhile, was a theatrical phenomenon, commanding adoring sell-out crowds wherever she performed and moving in the highest social circles in the land. It was, therefore, inevitable that their paths should cross and when they did, the resultant portrait was not one that Gainsborough found easy.

If, in 1784, Reynolds painted Siddons as a figure of mythical grandeur, to Gainsborough she is a far less distant subject, and he has stripped her clean of the embellishments of mythology. Though still grand and dignified, he has very much rendered her as a human being, albeit one of fashion and success. Clad in the most up to the minute fashions, Gainsborough does not give the spectator a goddess like that depicted by Reynolds, but a glimpse into Georgian celebrity.

Rendered in Gainsborough's justly celebrated smooth, soft brushwork it is almost as though we could reach into the canvas and touch the rich fabrics Mrs Siddons wears, her artfully rumpled skirts falling just so about the chair on which she sits. Whereas she shared the canvas in Reynolds's iconic work, in this portrait there is nothing in the image to distract from the central figure of the actress. Looking off and away from the audience, we are in no doubt from her air of regal self-possession that this is a woman of no small importance. It is the 18th century equivalent of a celebrity publicity shot, constructed and directed to create an impression upon the viewer. Although this purports to be a portrait of Mrs Sarah Siddons, she is in character here just as much as she is on stage and, equally, just as she is when portraying the Tragic Muse for Reynolds.

In March 1785, Gainsborough completed the work and the painting was celebrated upon its unveiling at the National Gallery. Recent technological developments have offered us an insight into the methods Gainsborough employed and suggest that the painter did not find his painting of Mrs Siddons an easy one to produce.

X-rays on the painting have revealed pentimenti around the actress's right hand and nose, where Gainsborough has painted over the work several times in his search for perfection. Popular art legend has it that, frustrated and distracted by his inability to quite capture Mrs Siddons to his liking, Gainsborough threw down his brush and exclaimed, "Confound the nose, there’s no end to it!”.

Happily for all of us, the artist finally did lay down his brush on a completed painting, leaving us with another breathtaking depiction of the most celebrated lady to grace the Georgian stage.


Sources

Perry, Gill, Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768-1820, (Yale University Press, 2007)
Perry, Gill and Roach, Joseph, The First Actresses: Nell Gwynn to Sarah Siddons, (National Portait Gallery, 2011)
Postle, Martin, Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity, (Tate Publishing, 2005)

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Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.
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4 comments:

  1. Thank you! I have a paper to write about Gainsborough's art, and this helped me a lot. :)

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    1. Excellent; good luck!

      I have another Gainsborough post at my own blog at http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2014/08/thomas-gainsborough-painters-daughters.html , which might be useful too.

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