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New Evidence Suggests a Double-Homicide Propelled Thomas Gainsborough Toward Art

Two members of Gainsborough’s family were killed over a financial dispute when the artist was a child. Without their deaths, it’s possible that he may never have had the chance to study painting.

Thomas Gainsborough, “Self-Portrait” (1759) (via Wikimedia Commons)

“We will come down and blow you up with gunpowder, God damn you.” Those threatening words reached the uncle and cousin of the 18th-century artist Thomas Gainsborough, after they were anonymously sent from London on March 1, 1783. Gainsborough’s family members were pursuing repayment of a dangerous debt despite receiving a series of such letters urging them to drop the claim or otherwise face certain death.

Nevertheless, he persisted and paid the ultimate price one year later when the father and son (also named Thomas Gainsborough, like the artist) were found dead. In his will, the uncle bequeathed an 11-year-old Thomas £40 (equivalent to about $6,100 in 2018 when considering inflation) with the proviso that he put it towards a “light handicraft,” according to The Telegraph. This was an invaluable gift for the fledgling artist, whose own father was bankrupt. With that money, Gainsborough left home for London to train as an artist.

This stunning lost chapter of Gainsborough family history is the result of a four-year research inquiry conducted by Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, Suffolk, with further assistance by The Art Newspaper, which unearthed a series of these anonymous letters published in The London Gazette. The missives were sent to the newspaper by the artist’s father, John Gainsborough, on September 26, 1738. Within the Gazette article, Gainsborough appeals to readers with a reward of £30 (~$4,600) and a promise not to prosecute anyone coming forward with information about the murderous accomplices.

The artist’s uncle seems to have caught himself in a financial dispute between Richard Brock and the family’s former business partner, John Barnard. The anonymous letters accuse Gainsborough of having already financially “ruined” Brock, promising murder as revenge for any further actions toward remuneration. The letters specifically mention stalking the artist’s cousin as a preemptive intimidation tactic before taking sweet revenge.

Thomas Gainsborough, “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews” (1748) (via Wikimedia Commons)

One letter sent on September 3, 1738, warned that the cousin would soon meet his “ominous end,” and warned that the assailants not be afraid to attack when the time came, seeing as there was a dozen of them. An ultimatum was issued to the Gainsboroughs: drop their claim within a week or face death.

That chance expired on September 10. Five days later, the cousin was buried at age 29. As The Art Newspaper writes, given that his body had to be transported from London to Sudbury as funeral arrangements were being made, he would have likely been murdered just hours after the deadline passed.

Undeterred, the artist’s uncle continued to pursue the debt. He died in a London pub six months later. Extensive reports about the Gainsborough uncle’s death do not cite a cause a death, which indicates that he likely died of some surreptitious plot: perhaps either by poison or knife. Evidence currently available does not indicate that any of the men involved in the revenge killings were ever caught.

Given this recently unveiled information, scholars will now have to revise their understanding of the artist’s early biography.

“It is extraordinary that despite hundreds of years of studying Gainsborough and numerous biographies, these key aspects of Gainsborough’s family history have only just been uncovered,” Bills told The Telegraph.

The deaths of his two close relatives must have taken a considerable emotional toll on the artist’s psyche. Arriving in London off the coach from Sudbury, Gainsborough would have seen the pub where his uncle was killed just around the corner.

This context also elucidates why Gainsborough may have chosen such a crude style for “Mr. and Mrs. Carter” (c. 1747–8). His father died in debt to the Carter family, and at least one of the paintings Gainsborough painted for the family was produced in lieu of monies owed. For an artist known for his exquisite taste in pomp and circumstance, he portrays the Carters as unkempt dullards. Mr. Carter, for instance, wears a vulgar waistcoat tightly synched around his gut and an outdated wig.

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