Regaining Gainsborough

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It is great to see Mike Gonzalez writing about culture again in Socialist Review (Culture, Socialist Review, December 2007), but I have to take issue with his implicit attack on the 18th century artist Thomas Gainsborough and his (not Constable's) picture of Mr and Mrs Andrews.

For Gonzalez, Mr and Mrs Andrews shows "complacent bourgeois farmers" with "safe landscapes neatly trimmed and fenced off behind". Obviously, this might well appeal to reactionary art critics, but can this painting — and Gainsborough's portraits in general — really be dismissed as just "middle class art" and part of "the artistic culture of the right"?

I am not so sure. I think there is a lot more to Gainsborough than meets the eye. It is known, for example, that while commissioned to paint portraits of the rich for a living, he resented being patronised in this way and often took revenge of sorts in his portraits. As the Marxist art critic John Berger noted in Ways of Seeing, Mr and Mrs Andrews are painted as "landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions". These "complacent bourgeois" are painted as complacent bourgeois — and Gainsborough in this sense was a great realist artist.

To do justice to Gainsborough's genius would require a full column — perhaps from Gonzalez in the future? — but mention might also be made of his fine portrait of the black playwright, poet and musician Ignatius Sancho.

While perhaps Gainsborough's work doesn't speak to our times in the same way as, say, the work of Picasso, for someone coming out of Suffolk in the 18th century to paint a former slave with dignity and power suggests it would be a serious mistake for Marxists to let the right claim Gainsborough for themselves and their impoverished backward-looking vision of "Little England".

Christian Hogsbjerg
Leeds