The celebrated 18th-century England portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough got an early start to his career. At the ripe age of 13, he left Sudbury, Suffolk, to study his chosen craft in London. According to a new report by Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper, this formative experience may have been made possible by a terrible tragedy that befell the artist’s family: the murder of Gainsborough’s cousin and uncle, who left his nephew a sum of money that helped finance the young artist’s studies.
Evidence of the murders was first uncovered by Mark Bills, the director of Gainsborough’s House, a museum based in the Sudbury home where the artist lived as a child. While conducting research for an upcoming exhibition on the artist’s early years, Bills discovered a 1738 report in the London Gazette, which referenced “two anonymous letters” containing threats that were sent to Gainsborough’s uncle and cousin, who were also both named Thomas. The report had been submitted by the artist’s father, who offered £30 for information connected to the ominous messages.
The Art Newspaper was subsequently able to track down the text of the letters, which had been reproduced in a 1738 edition of the Daily Gazetteer, an English newspaper. The letters claimed that its recipients had caused the financial ruin of a man named Richard Brock; as Mark Brown of the Guardian reports, Gainsborough’s uncle and cousin were prosperous businessmen who had been pursuing debts owed to John Barnard, a Sudbury-based dealer in textiles. Brock, evidently, had been a focus of their efforts, and the first letter, sent in March of 1738, warned them to stop probing into his finances.
“We will come down and blow you up with gunpowder, God damn you,” the message reads, according to Bailey. Another line was directed specifically at the cousin: “We will either shoot him or hang him up in gibbets, damn the… rogue’s arse,” it read.
Six months later, the uncle and cousin received a second threatening letter. This time, the writer claimed that a dozen assailants had been stalking their intended victims; they had, in fact, seen the cousin “upon the road” but decided against killing him because he was with his wife. The letter writer demanded that the Gainsboroughs abandon their claim against Brock within a week.
But the Gainsboroughs do not seem to have bowed to the demands. Records indicate that five days after the ultimatum expired, the cousin was buried. Six months later, the uncle died in a pub in London. The causes of their deaths were not specified, but Bills says that “circumstantial evidence” suggests the letter writer was not making idle threats.
Of course, the evidence is just that—circumstantial. And other questions remain about the purported murders of Gainsborough’s uncle and cousin. The identity of the killer or killers, for instance, is unknown, and it is not clear if anyone was ever apprehended in connection to the deaths.
It does seem, however, that the Gainsboroughs were concerned about the threats made against them. The uncle and cousin wrote wills in the months after receiving the first letter—and according to Brown of the Guardian, the elder Thomas Gainsborough left £40 to his nephew, a promising young artist who was 11 when the suspicious deaths occurred.
Without that money, Bills says in a statement, it is “unlikely that Gainsborough would have afforded to train as an artist or indeed travelled to London.” Gainsborough’s own father had gone bankrupt several years before.
Once in London, Gainsborough trained with Hubert-François Gravelot, a prominent French painter and engraver. “From him Gainsborough learned something of the French Rococo idiom,” the Encyclopaedia Britannica writes, “which had a considerable influence on the development of his style.”
In his later years, Gainsborough became one of the most sought-after portraitists in England; George reportedly III favored him over Joshua Reynolds, the official court painter. Portrait commissions were a lucrative business for Gainsborough, but he privately preferred to paint bucolic depictions of the English countryside. His work helped shaped the genre of landscape painting in England.
The new evidence raises intriguing questions about whether Gainsborough’s illustrious career blossomed in the shadow of familial traumas. “[O]n arriving in London,” Bills tells Bailey of the Art Newspaper, “the young Thomas must have been aware as he got off the coach from Sudbury that his uncle had been murdered in the pub around the corner.”