In January 1773, Gainsborough mapped out the methods used in this sheet - and others like it - in a remarkably detailed letter to his friend, the amateur painter William Jackson (1730-1803). He begins by stating that: ‘there is no man living… (besides yourself and one more…) that shall ever know my secret of making those studies you mention’. He then continues: ‘… take half a sheet of blotting paper such as the Clerks and those that keep books… Paste that and half a sheet of white paper, of the same size, together, let them dry, and in that state keep them for use – take a Frame of deal about two Inches larger every way, and paste, or glue, a few sheets of very large substantial paper, no matter what sort, thick brown, blue or any; then cut out a square half an inch less than the size of your papers for Drawing; so that it may serve for a perpetual stretching Frame or your Drawings; that is to say after you have dip’t your drawings as I shall by & by direct in a liquid, in that wet state you are to take, and run some hot glue and with a brush run round the border of your stretcher, gluing about half an Inch broad which is to receive your half an Inch extraordinary allow’d for the purpose in your drawing paper, so that when that dries, it may be like a drum. Now before you do anything by way of stretching, make the black & white of your drawing, the Effect I mean, disposition in rough, Indian Ink shaddows [sic], your lights of Bristol made white lead which you buy in lumps at any house painters; saw it in the size you want for your white chalk, the Bristol is harder and more the temper of chalk than the London. When you see your Effect, dip it all over in skim’d milk’, put it wet on [your] Frame (just glued as before observed to) let it dry, and then you correct your [illegible] with Indian Ink, if you want to add more lights, or other, do it and dip again, till all your Effect is to your mind; then tinge in your greens your browns with sap green, Bistre, your yellows with Gall stone, blue with fine Indigo’. Finally, Gainsborough recommended varnishing the work ‘3 times with Spirit Varnish such as I sent you, though only Mastic & Venice Turpentine is sufficient, then cut out your drawing but observe it must be Varnished both sides to keep it flat.’1
During the 1770s Gainsborough cemented his position, along with Sir Joshua Reynolds, as Britain’s leading society portrait painter. With this success, however, came pressure and he found great solace in the study of nature and regularly carried out sketching trips in the countryside. He immersed himself in the pastoral and created drawings and oil-sketches on paper – of which the present sheet is an outstanding example – that are not only loaded with great spontaneity and dramatic light effects, but also with a sense of the sublime.
1. J. Hayes, The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, New Haven and London, 2001, pp. 110-111
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