In the narrow lane behind the childhood home of Thomas Gainsborough, the unemployed people of the painter’s native Sudbury used to queue for admission to the town’s labour exchange.
In its place, a new gallery now rises, elegantly faced in local flint and brick. It has been created thanks to a Heritage Lottery backed-project, costing £10.5m and committed to transforming the museum devoted to the English artist’s life and work.
As Gainsborough’s House museum reopens today, visitors will be welcomed into the carefully created environs of the largest gallery space in Suffolk. From a huge window on the top floor, they will be greeted with a spectacular view across rooftops to the landscape that so inspired one of our best loved artists. Beyond the river that powered the town’s silk industry, a green field can be seen—the setting for Gainsborough’s most famous painting, the enigmatic and never completed Mr and Mrs Andrews, created around 1750.
The road where he was born, the youngest of nine children of an intermittently prosperous wool weaver, was renamed Gainsborough Street in 1897, jointly honouring the artist and Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The Grade I listed house—Medieval in origin but given a fancy Georgian front by his parents—has been an independent museum since 1958. Maggi Hambling, patron of the Friends of Gainsborough’s House, credits the home as “seminal in my desire to become an artist”, the first place where she saw great art as a child.
It was, however, remarkably awkward; a jumble of periods and floor levels, narrow staircases and small rooms, with such low ceilings the full-length portraits could only be hung brushing both cornice and floor. Despite heroic efforts by staff and volunteers, it was failing on all levels, says its director, Mark Bills.
The solution was the creation of a new building at the bottom of the beautiful garden. The building was constructed in the midst of aged trees, including a quince, a medlar and a mulberry that stood swaying in the wind in Gainsborough’s day. Today, the fruits of the mulberry tree are turned into jam and sold as gifts. Its design was entrusted to architects ZMMA, whose work includes the new galleries at the Museum of the Home in London, and the Scottish design galleries at the V&A Dundee.
Through the spacious new museum entrance, visitors will be guided through two small galleries and one very large temporary exhibition gallery, which will act as a temporary home for major loan shows, and a permanent gallery hung with specially woven dark green silk damask donated by Humphries—one of three surviving mills in Sudbury—for the museum’s own major Gainsborough collection. Further galleries in the original house provide enough room for two special collections: works gifted by the estate of the local artist, Cedric Morris—Hambling is a trustee and former student—and a personal collection related to Suffolk’s other famous painter, John Constable, on long-term loan from his descendants.
The project has been hit by the pandemic and politics. In 2019, when the museum closed, the paintings went on loan to Russia where Muscovites queued around the block to see them. They were returned safely, just before lockdown, but Bills had planned to reopen with a reciprocal loan exhibition of French landscapes from Moscow: instead, he will now show a collection early 20th-century Flemish paintings from Antwerp.
Gainsborough left Sudbury aged 13 to train as a painter in London, funded by a bequest from an uncle almost certainly murdered in a dispute over a debt. He returned in 1746 to work in the town for six years before moving to Ipswich, Bath and, finally, London in search of ever more wealthy patrons.
Despite his worldly career, Bills believes Sudbury and the surrounding landscape remained a formative influence on Gainsborough throughout his life. In 1770, he wrote to a friend from Bath: “I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gam (ba) and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the Fag End of life in quietness and ease.” Instead, Gainsborough died aged 61 in 1788, internationally renowned and a favourite of George III and his family, in his mansion home on Pall Mall in London.
•Gainsborough’s House museum, in Sudbury, Suffolk, reopens to the public from 21 November