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View near King's Bromley, on Trent, Staffordshire

Thomas Gainsborough, English, 1727 - 1788

Made in Great Britain, Europe


Oil on canvas

47 × 66 1/8 inches (119.4 × 168 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 377, European Art 1500-1850, third floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The William L. Elkins Collection, 1924

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Additional information:
  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Hayes ("Gainsborough and Rubens." Apollo, n.s., vol. 78 {August 1963}) discussed this river scene in terms of Gainsborough's response in the later 1760s to Rubens's (1577-1640) mature landscapes, comparing it to the Flemish artist's panoramic Park of a Castle (c. 1631, oil on panel, 20 1/2 x 38 1/4“, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). His long analysis of the complex composition emphasizes the movement laterally across the picture: "The eye is led from the foreground tree stumps on the left through the main subject of the picnic-party to the rustic crossing over the bridge, and back again in a further plane through the diagonals of the tree trunks on the right and the group of cattle drinking. There is a tremendous sense of recession in the landscape, and the eye is finally lost in the sketchily painted background, where dragged white brushstrokes envelope the distance in a kind of haze."1 Hayes connected this composition with a landscape by Lucas van Leyden (1489/94-1533) at Stourhead, Wiltshire (Landscape, oil on panel, 21 x 34” {53.3 x 86.4 cm.}, Wiltshire, Stourhead), which was well known in the eighteenth century.

    This criticism accords well with the traditional view that Gainsborough's later landscapes are entirely imaginary--a view stemming from Gainsborough himself, who, in a letter to Lord Hardwicke of c. 1764, gracefully declined a commission to paint a view of Lord Hardwicke's country seat with these words: "But with respect to real Views from Nature in this Country he has never seen any Place that affords a Subject equal to the poorest imitations of Gaspar or Claude. Paul Sandby (1730-1809) is the only Man of Genius, he believes, who has employ'd his Pencil that way."2 Yet, as Hayes and Pointon (Marcia Pointon. "Gainsborough and the Landscape of Retirement." Art History, vol. 2, no. 4, {December 1979}, pp. 441-55) have written elsewhere, Gainsborough certainly sketched from nature, and his close friend William Jackson wrote that "he never chose to paint anything from invention, when he could have the objects themselves."3

    This is indeed a sophisticated exercise in Flemish and Dutch landscape composition. But it is more. Since its sale at Christie's in 1894, this painting has been called "View near King's Bromley, on Trent, Staffordshire." And a visit to the village of King's Bromley confirms that Gainsborough has painted a view of the tower of All Saints Church as it appears from the river bank at a distance of about one half mile along the south bank, upstream. Since then the shoreline has changed somewhat, and the trees, of course, have disappeared, while others--birches, alders, and cedars--far more numerous, have replaced them; but the square tower of All Saints, set back about two hundred yards from the river, is easily recognizable, except that it is now crowned by four Victorian gothic pinnacles, added in 1870.

    Any doubts that this is a real view vanish on examination of the provenance of the picture. It belonged to John Newton-Lane, a descendant of Samuel Newton, who owned the manor King's Bromley in the eighteenth century. The spot from which Gainsborough stood to see All Saints in this position is in the north terrace of the manor park. That the terrain has not changed much in the last one hundred years is evident from a description of the manor park in a local history: "The park...extends to the banks of the Trent, and formerly used to contain deer....The Trent pursues its winding course on the north side of the house, the river walk leading from the north terrace along well-wooded grounds, which in summer present a most picturesque appearance. The river Trent, now, as in olden time, affords ample sport."4 In the eighteenth century (but no longer) this was a popular place for pike and salmon fishing, and it is still used for bathing.

    This is not to say that Gainsborough has painted a straightforward topographical view. The footbridge, if it ever existed, is no longer there, and may well have been included in homage to a similar motif in Rubens's Park of a Castle. The sailing ships in the distance are fictive, because the Trent at this point is too narrow and shallow to permit the sport. Then, too, the pleasure party in the fishing boat is presumably an arcadian touch, removing the scene from the particular and giving it a timeless, old masterish tone. Waterhouse may have hit the nail on the head when he referred to these figures as having a "slightly rarified quality of beauty, a sort of less modish Watteau quality,''5 for the mood of the picture is one of gentle melancholy, recalling Gainsborough's remarks to the artist and actor Prince Hoare (1775-1834) criticizing Reynolds's (1723-1792) Fourth Discourse, in which he recommended that Sir Joshua "come down to Watteau at once (who was a very fine Painter taking away the french conceit)."6 What emerges from this identification of the scene is that Gainsborough's achievement in transforming a very pretty local scene into a timeless, arcadian dream is able to stand comparison with Rubens and Watteau (1684-1721).

    On a more mundane level, this also presupposes that Gainsborough visited Staffordshire, which has not hitherto been recorded. We do know that in the late 1760s Gainsborough was writing to his attorney, James Unwin, whose family lived in nearby Derbyshire. Unfortunately, we know nothing about the person who presumably commissioned the picture, Samuel Newton (d. 1771). The obvious supposition, that Gainsborough was invited to the manor at King's Bromley to paint members of the Newton family, is not tenable, as no portraits have come down to us. Until we have more information about Gainsborough's movements and patrons in these years, the mystery must remain unsolved.

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 116-118.

    1. John Hayes. "Gainsborough and Rubens." Apollo, n.s., vol. 78 (August 1963), p. 92.
    2. Mary Woodall, ed. The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough. Rev. ed. Bradford, 1963, no. 42, pp. 87-91. But Pointon (1979, p. 444) remarks that despite this disavowal, Gainsborough spent much of his time during his Suffolk years (at least) painting "real views from Nature." See Emilie Buchwald, "Gainsborough's 'Prospect, Animated Prospect,"' in Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics, 1660-1800, Essays in Honor of Samuel Holt Monk, ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea (Minneapolis, 1967), p. 367.
    3· John Hayes, "Gainsborough and the Gaspardesque," The Burlington Magazine, vol. ll2, no. 806 (May 1970), p. 508. See William Jackson, The Four Ages (London, 1798), pp. 167-68.
    4. Alfred Williams, Sketches in and around Litchfield and Rugeley, Comprising a Descriptive and Historical Account of All the Towns and Villages in the District, Together with the Principal County Seats. As Well as of All the Churches in the Locality (Litchfield and Rugeley, 1892), p. 179.
    5. Ellis K. Waterhouse. Gainsborough. London, 1958, p. 30.
    6. Mary Woodall, ed. The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough. Rev. ed. Bradford, 1963, no. 46, p. 95.

    J. P. Neale,Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, 2nd series (London, 1828), vol. 4, unpaginated; Jones’s View of the Seat, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen (London, 1829), vol. 2, unpaginated; George Williams Fulcher. Life of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. 2nd ed. Edited by E. S. Fulcher. London, 1856, p. 208; Catalogue of Paintings in the Private Collection of W. L. Elkins. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1887-1900, vol. 2, no. 62, repro.; William Roberts. Memorials of Christie's: A Record of Art Sales from 1766 to 1896. 2 vols. London, 1897, vol. 2, pp. 226-27; Walter Armstrong. Gainsborough and His Place in English Art. London and New York, 1898, p. 205; Armstrong, 1904, p. 284; A. E. Fletcher, Thomas Gainsborough R.A. (London, 1904), p. 220; Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art.Catalogue of Paintings in the Elkins Gallery. Philadelphia, 1921, no. 19; Ellis K. Waterhouse. Gainsborough. London, 1958, pp. 30, 117, no. 945, pl. 122; John Hayes. "Gainsborough and Rubens." Apollo, n.s., vol. 78 (August 1963), p. 92, fig. 7, p. 94; John Hayes. The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough. 2 vols. London, 1970. New Haven, 1971, p. 168; Herrmann, 1973, p. 97, pl. 90; Allen Staley. "British Painting from Hogarth to Alma Tadema."Apollo, n.s., vol. 100 (July 1974), p. 36; John Hayes. Gainsborough: Paintings and Drawings. London, 1975, p. 213, no. 63, pl. 74; Ronald Paulson. Emblem and Expression: Meaning in English Art of the Eighteenth Century. London, 1975, p. 247; Ellis K. Waterhouse, The Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters in Oils and Crayons (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1981), repro. p. 138; John Hayes. The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough: A Critical Text and Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. London and Ithaca, New York, 1982, vol. 1, pp. 96, 110, 112, 120, 123 n. 37, 238, vol. 2, pp. 437-38, no. 94, fig. 94.

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