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Thomas Gainsborough - Open landscape with a peasant, a milkmaid, four cows and a cottage

Thomas Gainsborough

Open landscape with a peasant, a milkmaid, four cows and a cottage

Oil on canvas: 22 x 43.3 (in) / 55.9 x 109.9 (cm)

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Sudbury, Suffolk 1727 - 1788 London

Ref: CA 166


Open landscape with a peasant, a milkmaid, four cows and a cottage


Oil on canvas: 22 x 43 ¼ in / 55.9 x 109.9 cm

Frame size: 30 x 52 in / 76.2 x 132.1 cm

In an antique eighteenth century Carlo Maratta frame


Painted circa 1772-4




Lawrie & Co., London, 1898;

from whom purchased by Robert William Hudson (1856-1937) before 1902;

by descent to his daughter-in-law, Beatrice Sabina, Lady Hudson (née Gaudenigo), Monte Carlo, Monaco



London, Corporation of London Art Gallery, Selection of Works by French and English Painters of the Eighteenth Century, 1902, no.52 (lent by RW Hudson)



Sir Walter Armstrong, Gainsborough and His Place in English Art, London and New York 1898, pp.vii, illus.; 206

Arthur B Chamberlain, Thomas Gainsborough, London and New York 1903, pp.51, illus.; 144-5, 149

Sir Walter Armstrong, Gainsborough and His Place in English Art, London 1904, facing p.16, illus.; p.287

William B Boulton, Thomas Gainsborough: His Life, Work, Friends and Sitters, London 1905, pp.48, 62

Ellis Waterhouse, Gainsborough, London 1958, p.114, no.905

John Hayes, The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, London 1982, vol. 2, Catalogue Raisonné, pp.457-8, no.111, illus.


This landscape has escaped critical attention for over 120 years and it was last exhibited in London in 1902. Its recent reappearance reveals that the canvas is in exceptional condition and shows Gainsborough’s strengths as a consummate painter of landscapes.


In the centre of the composition a young woman milks a cow as her husband walks away from the scene, steadying his burden of two full pails of milk on a wooden yoke. To the right is a humble cottage with a smoking chimney, a hole in the thatch and a diamond-leaded window that catches the last rays of the evening sun. Three other cows, perhaps already milked, stand in the flat landscape and on the horizon a church tower is an indication of a village close by and the watchful presence of the Almighty. Bushes and a couple of saplings surround the cottage and another tree forms a diagonal that links the cottage with the bucolic scene in the centre of the composition.


Gainsborough often used milking scenes in his landscapes. Early in his career, in one of the overmantels painted for two refurbished rooms in Woburn Abbey, a milkmaid is being wooed by a woodcutter, but in the present landscape the figures are calmer and appear to be working as a team.1 The unusual shape of the present canvas suggests that it too was intended for a particular architectural setting - very probably an overmantel - though the early ownership of the painting is unknown and consequently it cannot be linked to any specific building. Several paintings from Gainsborough’s formative years in Suffolk were likely to have been painted to hang in specific places. Some were landscapes, such as the two canvases at Woburn Abbey, and others were portraits of married couples improbably posing in landscape settings. The double portraits of Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750-51) in the National Gallery, London and those of Mr and Mrs John Browne with their infant daughter Anna Maria (c.1754-55), now at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, are perhaps the best-known examples.2 These connections encouraged early commentators to date the present canvas too early in the artist’s career. In the 1902 exhibition at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery it was dated 1747-48, while Sir Walter Armstrong suggested a rather more wide-ranging date of 1748 to 1757. Arthur B Chamberlain’s intuitive description of the work is worth repeating: ‘a simple subject - very poetically set forth the sentiment of a calm peaceful evening, when the whole scene is flooded with golden light, has been produced by no elaboration of the different parts’.3 The handling of the painting and the faultless balance of the composition show that this painting dates from the early 1770s, when Gainsborough was about to leave Bath to further his career in London. The subject matter has parallels in a landscape long in the collection of the Earls of Jersey and on this basis John Hayes convincingly dated the present canvas circa 1772-74.4


The leaning tree is countered by the movement of the clouds. The position of the cows and the various directions they face link the husband and wife with the building and close the composition on the left. The church tower provides a punctuation mark on the horizon and the sparse branch from the leaning tree connects the landscape with the clouds. The smoke from the cottage chimney echoes the angle of the leaning tree and the use of white on rump, muzzle and sleeves skilfully unifies the composition. A distant hedge, grasses growing in different directions, and a clump of burdocks in the foreground, together with the light striking a distant field, the leaning tree trunk, the path and the cottage articulate the landscape and provides unifying details that show Gainsborough to be a consummate designer balancing this unusual composition with extraordinary skill and subtlety.



1. A receipted invoice for the two landscapes was paid on 17th November 1755. They cost £21 and £15.15s (GS Thomson, ‘Two Landscapes by Gainsborough’, Burlington Magazine, vol. XCII, July 1950, pp.200–3 and John Hayes, The Landscapes of Thomas Gainsborough, London 1982, pp.383–86, cat. nos.50-51, illus.).

2. H Belsey, Thomas Gainsborough: The Portraits, Fancy Pictures and Copies after Old Masters, New Haven and London 2019, pp.32-34, cat. no.20, illus. in colour and pp.113-14, cat. no.113, illus. in colour.

3. AB Chamberlain, Thomas Gainsborough, London and New York [1903], p.149.

4. John Hayes, The Landscapes of Thomas Gainsborough, London 1982, pp.454-55, cat. no.109, illus. The canvas was sold at Sotheby’s London, 22nd November 2007, lot 41, illus. in colour. It is now in a private collection.


                                                                      Hugh Belsey






Sudbury, Suffolk 1727 – 1788 London


Thomas Gainsborough is among the finest – and certainly the best-loved – English painters of the eighteenth century. Born in 1727 in Sudbury, Suffolk, the son of a clothier turned postmaster, he studied in London from c.1740 with the rococo painters Hubert-François Gravelot and Francis Hayman. In 1746 he married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, whose large (£200 a year) allowance failed to make him as prosperous as he would have wished. Gainsborough probably attended Hogarth’s St Martin’s Lane Academy and contributed a painting of The Charterhouse to Hogarth’s favourite charity, the Foundling Hospital (1748; Foundling Hospital).


In 1748 Gainsborough returned to Sudbury, painting landscapes influenced by the seventeenth century Dutch masters and earning his living by portrait painting. Among these portraits is the astonishing Mr and Mrs Andrews, c.1748-50 (National Gallery, London) with its elegant figures set in an exquisite naturalistic landscape. In 1752 Gainsborough moved to the bigger town of Ipswich, painting local worthies like Admiral Vernon, 1753 (with Richard Green Gallery in 2000), before going on to fashionable Bath around 1759.


Gainsborough – mercurial, witty and a fine musician - prospered in Bath with a diaphanous and brilliantly inventive portrait style influenced by the glamour of van Dyck. Portraits like Mary, Countess Howe, 1763-4 (Kenwood House, London) are painted in free, flickering brushstrokes which make the sitter shimmer with life. His landscapes of this period, such as The harvest waggon, 1767 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham) are similarly poetic.


Gainsborough exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1761. In 1768 he was a founder member of the Royal Academy, although he had an uneasy relationship with that institution, withdrawing from RA exhibitions from 1773 to 1777 and finally breaking with it in 1784 when his portraits of the royal family were ‘skied’. 


In 1774 Gainsborough moved to London, settling at Schomberg House in the Mall (which still stands) and moving, as he had always done, in musical, theatrical and society circles. His later portraits, like Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1785 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) envelop the sitter in a freely-painted, romantic landscape. He painted richly-toned landscapes influenced by Rubens, mythological subjects such as Diana and Actaeon (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace) and large, sentimental ‘fancy pictures’ like Cottage girl with dog and pitcher (National Gallery, Dublin).


Gainsborough was a superb, experimental draughtsman, working in chalk, charcoal, pen and ink, pencil, softground etching, and a mysterious technique designed to make drawings emulate oil paintings, in which he varnished drawings with gum Arabic. Emulating his friend Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, he also painted landscapes on glass back-lit with candlelight. Gainsborough liked to paint by candlelight, as it unified tones and softened detail; his portraits are full of magical, half-glimpsed movement.


His rival Joshua Reynolds wrote a valedictory Discourse on Gainsborough after his death in London in August 1788, when only sixty-one and at the height of his powers: ‘If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honourable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of Art, among the very first of that rising name’.  




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