A new exhibition at the Holburne Museum showcases portraits of theatrical figures by Thomas Gainsborough, reflecting a time when theatre was taking on a more serious mantle, says Emma Clegg

Going to the theatre is most often considered a refined, thought-provoking cultural experience. Watching a live theatrical production – whether a dark Shakespearean tragedy or an uplifting Mamma Mia style musical – can be thrilling. It restores the soul, somehow. But modern day theatre has a distinctive etiquette. We know what time to arrive, where to get refreshments, how to behave, when to applaud. The cast of actors do not have to deal with raucous audience heckling or expect to be pelted with rotten fruit or eggs.

Theatre in the 18th century had none of these sureties. Members of the audience could pay more to sit on the stage, and were able to interfere with the performance. When on stage, it was customary for actors to strike a pose and speak their lines formally. Once they had finished, actors would cease to pay attention to what was happening on stage. It was quite normal for them to extend one arm and, literally, spring off the stage.

The Gainsborough and the Theatre exhibition at the Holburne Museum hails a time when this stylisation was being questioned. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, theatre had grown rapidly. By the 18th century it was moving away from the peripatetic, mass-entertainment productions that had been the norm. Existing playhouses were enlarged and others were newly commissioned throughout London and the provinces. Regional theatres, such as the ones in Bath, were becoming established and received official patents from the king. Many theatres were only licensed for a season, so when theatres were not open, players came out to the regions, and the tracks from London to the fashionable spa resort of Bath would have been well-worn. Coming to Bath was an ­­­opportunity for actors to try out productions and to develop their confidence.

Thomas Linley the elder, Thomas Gainsborough, c.1770, © Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Actors would have a more select, discerning audience in Bath than in London and there would be a greater proportion of influential people in their audience.

Sarah Siddons, for example, used Bath for about six years, from 1777, to build up her reputation. While she later became a well-known theatre tragedienne, she was then a young actress, and her initial years on the London stage hadn’t brought the success she desired. She had been in competition with established leading ladies who did not welcome a new rival. So she came to the provinces to hone her trade.

Gainsborough arrived in Bath in 1759, and found there a keen clientele for his portraits among Bath’s well-heeled visitors. His friendship with David Garrick and James Quin, from a new breed of wealthy leading actors, helped him to make the contacts he needed for securing commissions.

Amina Wright, senior curator at the Holburne, explains Gainsborough’s link with the theatre: “The theatre was a very interesting aspect of Gainsborough’s life, which revolved around the entertainment industry – he himself was an entertainer of sorts. And a lot of his closest friends were musicians and actors. Socially they had a lot in common because they were neither one thing or the other, neither gentry nor landowners, not wealthy. But they were not working class either; they were in between, aspiring to be gentlemen, and working creatively at a higher level than just artisans.”

“In Bath, actors would have a more select, discerning audience than in London and a greater proportion of influential people”

The exhibition at the Holburne Museum features 37 pieces, including 15 oil portraits by Thomas Gainsborough, works on paper such as satires and playbills and theatrical ephemera. The exhibition tells the story of how some of Gainsborough’s most important relationships were with the major figures of the theatre in London and Bath. The portraits include those of actors Sarah Siddons, David Garrick, Samuel Foote and Mary Robinson. There are also portraits of those with other connections to the theatre, such as James Lacy who owned a share in Drury Lane Theatre; dancer August Vestris; and stage scenery designer Philip James de Loutherbourg. The non-painted exhibits, including a theatre bill for The Merchant of Venice, an etching of Bath’s Orchard Theatre and a souvenir handkerchief for the Shakespeare Jubilee, provide a harmonious context.

‘True but every goose can…’, Nathaniel Dance, c.1781, © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Many of the portraits shown were offered as ‘friendship portraits,’ namely gifts. It was also, clearly, a really useful marketing technique – someone admiring a portrait on display in an actor’s home could soon commission one. Actors were also the recognisable celebrities of their day and portraits of them connected with people, so they had considerable power and influence.

“You can tell with Gainsborough when he liked somebody,” says Amina. “These portraits show an intimacy and a strong sense of character.” His theatrical portraits also include added artistic bonuses that would not be offered in his standard commissions, featuring a particular gesture or a particular object in the subject’s hand.

Gainsborough was known at the time for his naturalistic use of paint. While seeing him as a naturalistic painter is more challenging today – used as we are to the looser brushstrokes of John Constable and the more expressive use of paint that followed – it was a clean and significant move away from the highly stylised formal paintings that went before.

John Garrick, a close friend of Gainsborough, applied the same naturalistic style to his acting, controversially challenging the highly affected mannerisms that were used in the theatre at that time. He was credited with ‘rediscovering’ Shakespeare, and bringing back many of the original lines from his plays that had been dropped. He also brought more honesty, warmth and sympathy to the actor’s performance, understanding the character’s perspective and passions in a way that was revolutionary at the time.

The work of Gainsborough and Garrick identifies a new sensibility with reference to the use of paint and the art of the theatre. Gainsborough’s portraits, from Mrs Robinson with her Pomeranian dog, to actor John Henderson with his gently instructional pointing finger, are a document of a time of friendship and of cultural change.

Gainsborough and the Theatre, 5 October – 20 January at the Holburne Museum; holburne.org

Featured image: Mrs Siddons, Thomas Gainsborough, 1785 © National Gallery, London