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Samuel Linley

Allegedly completed in just forty-eight minutes, this sensitive portrait of Samuel Linley (1760–78) by the British artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) captures the sitter as he is about to join the Royal Navy. The neutral background is rapidly stippled with almost transparent paint and a dry brush. With a limited palette of blue, white and black, Gainsborough has applied thin, sweeping strokes to describe Samuel’s coat and necktie. Painted with speed and simplicity, there is just enough detail to identify Samuel’s midshipman’s uniform; a glint of a brass button holds back his collar and minimal brushstrokes suggest the regulation black waistcoat beneath his coat. Samuel’s lightly powdered wig appears swept up, giving the impression of the sea breezes already buffeting his brow. In going to sea on the HMS Thunderer, Samuel deviated from the set path of his siblings in the musical Linley family. Known as the ‘Nest of Nightingales’, their father encouraged their musical abilities and members of the family performed on stage in Bath and London. Samuel distinguished himself by learning the oboe, but the draw of the sea meant that at the age of eighteen he had decided on a different course. Tragically, the Thunderer returned to Portsmouth after an outbreak of fever amongst the crew, Samuel among them. He was met by his father and taken to London, where he died a few weeks later. Samuel was allegedly nursed by Emma Hart (1765–1815) who, having left the Linley household distraught at the news of Samuel’s death, later married the British diplomat Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803) and embarked on a love affair with Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805).

The convincing likeness captured with such an economy of paint is testament to Gainsborough’s remarkable skill. Well known for his grand society portraits, the pared back nature of this piece shows how Gainsborough’s minimal, impressionistic technique was just as successful. This unfinished style became more acceptable in the late-eighteenth century and was often used to reflect an informal relationship between artist and sitter. There is a sense of personal connection in this portrait, and Gainsborough would, in fact, have been a familiar figure throughout Samuel’s childhood. A close friend of Samuel’s father, Thomas Linley (1733–95), Gainsborough assumes the role here of both quotidian family friend and sought-after society portraitist.

Currently on display

Thomas Gainsborough
Gallery 10
75.8 x 63.5 cm
Oil on canvas
William Linley Bequest, 1835
Accession number
Adopted by The B.A.D.A. Trust, 2001