Wynne Ellis (1790–1875);
His posthumous sale, London, Christie’s, 15 July 1876, lot 60, to Patrington for £100.5s;
Ralph Cross Johnson;
By whom given to the National Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington;
By whom deaccessioned, New York, Sotheby's, 4 June 1987, lot 135 (as After Gainsborough);
Anonymous sale, New Orleans Auction Galleries, 9–19 April 2011, lot 56 (as After Thomas Gainsborough);
With Historical Portraits Ltd, London, from whom acquired by the present owner.
San Marino, Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, Revisiting the Cottage Door: Gainsborough’s Masterpiece in Focus, 1 June – 2 December 2013, no. 2.
G. B. Rose, ‘The Ralph Cross Johnson Collection at the National Gallery of Art’, in Art and Archaeology, vol. X, no. 3, September 1920, pp. 342 and 354, reproduced;
J. Hayes, The Landscapes of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols, London 1982, p. 480;
H. Belsey, Gainsborough’s Cottage Doors. An Insight into the Artist’s Last Decade, London 2013, pp. 24, 66, 100–07, 116–17, cat. no. 2, reproduced in colour p. 117, and detail reproduced on front cover.
The Cottage Door is one of Gainsborough’s most famous compositions, and is among his most popular and enduring works. It is one of the great icons of eighteenth-century British landscape painting. The subject had huge personal significance for the artist, and such was his emotional attachment to the picture that three versions were produced, all with slight variations in tone and light, reflecting Gainsborough’s constant search for emotional perfection. The first version, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1780, was bought in 1786 by Thomas Harvey for Catton House in Norfolk, and is now one of the jewels in the crown of the Henry E. Huntington Collection at The Huntington Library, San Marino, possibly the greatest collection of eighteenth century British painting outside of the United Kingdom. However Gainsborough was so fond of the composition that a second version (the present lot), was painted for his own collection. It remained in his possession until his death and was only sold by his executors in 1789 as part of the great sale of Gainsborough’s collection and studio contents at Schomberg House when it was acquired by the great collector, politician and businessman Wynne Ellis (1790–1875). Ellis’s collection consisted of some 402 Old Master paintings, as well as a huge number of works by modern and contemporary British artists including Gainsborough, Reynolds, David Wilkie, Richard Wilson and Turner. In 1854 the great art historian Dr Gustav Friedrich Waagen, who saw this picture in Ellis’s collection and greatly admired it, described the painting in his Treasure of Art in Great Britain as being ‘of uncommon power and warmth of colouring’. At Ellis's death his staggering collection was left to the nation, however the trustees of the National Gallery selected only 44 of the paintings, with the remainder of the collection being distributed in an astonishing five day sale in 1876. Other works by Gainsborough that were disposed of in this sale included his famous Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which was bought by Agnew’s for the incredible sum of £10,605 and later sold to the American banker John Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913). A third version, less finely detailed than the first two, also remained in the artist’s collection and now hangs in a private collection in Dallas.
The majestic composition is possibly the most successful of all Gainsborough’s treatments of this theme, which recurs many times in his art. Based on a pyramid within a pyramid, the construction of the picture and emphasis of light within, focuses attention on the concentrated figure group, which forms the emotional essence of the painting. John Constable said of Gainsborough’s landscapes that ‘on looking at them, we find tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them’. Like many contemporaries he was profoundly moved by the elder painter’s ability to conjure up ‘the depths of twilight’ and the sympathy with which he depicted ‘the lonely haunts of the solitary shepherd’ and other such ‘simple’ subject, as well as the obvious empathy which he held for the peasant men and women that inhabit his pictures. As Susan Sloman has commented, in a more cynical age such overt expressions of emotion are rarely expressed, however Gainsborough’s genius is such that the power of his pictures has endured, and he remains one of the best loved of all English artists. The Cottage Door is one of his finest achievements.
Gainsborough's Cottage Door in Context:
by Hugh Belsey
This recently identified canvas is an autograph replica of the painting shown at the Royal Academy to great acclaim in 1780. The canvas has been reused and so it is highly unlikely that the artist intended to sell it and so it must have been painted for the artist’s own amusement. It is not as finished as the 1780 painting, now in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Collections in San Marino, California, but the structure and the handling are indisputably by Gainsborough himself. It represents a very personal moment of the artist wanting to reflect on and analyse the brilliance and balance of the composition that he had exhibited a few years before. In addition to the painting offered here and the exhibited landscape that is now in the Huntington Library in California there is a third replica presently in a private collection in Dallas. All three paintings emphasise and re-examine different aspects of the subject. The painting on offer has a particularly strong and structured figure group and the colouring of the landscape takes on greener tones and the other replica uses a higher colour key. The subject, which has become known as The Cottage Door, dominated the artist’s landscape painting from 1770 until his death eighteen years later.
A group of women and children relaxing, eating and playing around the entrance to a simple cottage was a theme frequently examined by Thomas Gainsborough during the 1770s and 1780s. The subject first appears in the background of Thomas Gainsborough’s landscape painting now in the Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood where in the background a group of figures around the cottage doorway are enjoying the last rays of the evening sun and their contentment is contrasted in two other figure groups (fig. 1). One shows a posse of riders tired from trading all day at the market and in the bottom right hand corner of the canvas two pitiable peasant children beg by the roadside. It has been thought that these three contrasting groups represent differing degrees of poverty and the difficulties that recent Enclosure Acts had imposed on the peasantry. Politics was of little interest to Gainsborough but all his landscapes contain an aching nostalgia and, with the travelling figures, a restless sense of transition.
During the 1770s a series of drawings show similar groups of figures around cottage doors each with different emphases. Some have more unruly children, some cottages are almost engulfed by trees and others include a male peasant struggling with a huge bundle of sticks to provide heat and fuel to cook food. Gainsborough developed the Cottage Door theme in 1773 when he made an upright landscape that was purchased by Charles, 4th Duke of Rutland which still forms part of the collection at Belvoir Castle (fig. 2) and he repeated the composition for his friend the violinist Felice de Giardini. Both canvases shows a cottage with a large pollarded tree grown too big for its position beside the steps of a tiny cottage that indicates the length of time this particular patch of landscape had provided an income for the cottagers and their forebears. Their dependence on the landscape is shown by the peasant carrying an overlarge bundle of sticks on his back to satisfy the women and children idling their time away on the front steps. Five years later he returned to the subject painting a landscape on a horizontal-shaped canvas.
The landscape in Cincinnati Art Museum was shown at the Royal Academy in 1778 and in it the bundle of sticks had become larger and heavier, the children playing with dogs around the steps more rowdy and the women at the door more disengaged from the realities of life (fig. 3). It was described in the General Evening Post in May 1778 as ‘remarkable for the breadth and just distribution of the lights, the fine degradation of the distances, and the brilliancy and harmony of the colouring.’ Gainsborough painted the Huntington version of the theme two years later and it was also shown at the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy (fig. 4).
In the 1780 landscape Gainsborough first used a horizontal canvas similar in proportion to the Cincinnati landscape but his imagination ran beyond the confines of the edges and he extended it at both the top and bottom in order to complete his composition. In this painting the woman at the door is more beautiful, the toddlers content eating and drinking and the laden peasant is nowhere to be seen. The grandeur of the landscape adds to the tranquility of the figures and as a critic writing in A Candid Review of the Exhibition described, ‘the whole force of his genius [is concentrated] in a beautiful groupe of children and their mother’. Having calculated a facing-saving way of removing himself from the annual strictures of the Royal Academy exhibitions, Gainsborough had the time and opportunity to develop themes in his work that were of interest to him rather than his clientele. He was clearly satisfied with the 1780 painting of the Cottage Door and reproduced it twice. The act of painting it must have given him the greatest satisfaction as he reflected on a job well done.
It has been suggested that the Cottage Door theme had a personal significance for Gainsborough and this may explain why he returned to the subject so often. Aged nineteen Gainsborough had married and his wife grew to be haughty and, as the illegitimate daughter of a duke, she was anxious to establish her precarious social position. His two daughters were fashion conscious and as Gainsborough writes in one of his letters they spent their time ‘tea drinking, Dancing [and] Husband hunting’. Neither daughter had a sustained marriage and his brothers and sisters back in his native Suffolk saw the artist’s financial success as a lifeline. Perhaps the artist equated himself with the peasant labouring under the weight of the bundle of sticks and saw his wife, daughters, brother and sisters as the family group standing on the steps of the cottage dependent on his labours as the hard-working male. Each of the paintings and drawings of the Cottage Door have a different emphasis and mood and perhaps that reflected Gainsborough’s own varying attitude to his dependents.
If this speculation has any truth, by the time he painted the 1780 version of the landscape and the two replicas he made in the following decade he appears to have been more at ease with the situation and one final painting in the Hammer Museum of Art at the University of California at Los Angeles shows the male peasant seated, smoking and looking at his wife and family with pride and wonder (fig. 5).
The painting presently on offer provides an unusual insight into Gainsborough’s complex personality and it is also a remarkable summation of his thoughts about landscape, tranquility and family life.
We are grateful to Hugh Belsey for providing this catalogue entry, and for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.
Fig. 1 Thomas Gainsborough, Wooded Landscape with Peasant Travellers, c. 1770. Oil on canvas, 47 x 57 1/2 in (119.4 x 146.1 cm). Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, London
Fig. 2 Thomas Gainsborough, The Woodcutter’s Return, 1773. Oil on canvas, 58 x 48 ½ in (147.3 x 123.2 cm). Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle
Fig. 3 Thomas Gainsborough, The Cottage Door 1778. Oil on canvas, 48 ¼ x 58 ¾ in (122.5 x 149.2 cm). Cincinnati Art Museum.
Fig. 4 Thomas Gainsborough, The Cottage Door 1780. Oil on canvas, 58 x 47 in (147.3 x 119.4 cm). Henry E. Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino.
Fig. 5 Thomas Gainsborough, Peasant smoking at a Cottage Door, 1788. Oil on canvas, 77 x 62 in (195.6 x 157.5 cm). Hammer Museum, University of California at Los Angeles
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