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A portrait of a young landlord

Posted August. 20, 2020 07:40,   

Updated August. 20, 2020 07:46


Ownership of land is a symbol of wealth and power. Those in power have always owned and inherited land. To landlords, land was a means to reinforce and perpetuate power. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough captures the typical British landlord of the 18th century.

The model in the painting is Robert Andrews, the artist’s friend in high school years and his wife Francis Carter. They were married in 1748 at the age of 22 and 16. While Gainsborough, son of a failed businessman, became an apprentice painter after graduation, Andrews entered Oxford. Andrew’s family owned a wealthy farming business and was a shipowner as well, accumulating large wealth via colonial trade. His father gave his son large land at an early age and arranged marriage with the daughter of a wealthy landlord. It was a marriage of convenience to gain more land and efficient management. Perhaps this is why the couple appear to be indifferent.

When Andrews married he already owned 12 million m² of land and the background shown in the painting is actually his land. Unlike his wife clothed in a Rococo style dress, he is wearing a hunting outfit. It was chosen to show off his high social status as hunting was a privilege for high-class men back then. The painting is full of symbols including a pile of grain, the symbol of fertility; a dog which symbolizes fidelity; an oak tree of power and perpetuity, hinting that it was created to celebrate the marriage of the couple. The hand of the wife is incomplete, which was intentionally done to create space for descendants though initially intended to draw a book or a quail that was hunted down.

Gainsborough, a landscape painter, drew this portrait reluctantly. A painter should satisfy his client, however. Though the artist painted a picture of his own friend, he must have felt quite bitter about the status gap. The painter, who had not been strong in portraits, decided to create a painting of the couple against a landscape background, one of his strong points. Eventually this resulted in a unique style of his own, a combination of portraits and landscapes. The painting, though reflective of the artist’s bitterness towards the gentry class, gave great satisfaction to the client and reputation to the artist.