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A Couple in a Landscape

This pastoral scene, infused with a warm glow of late summer, provides the setting for an enigmatic portrait of a young couple. Known as a conversation piece, this small-scale work pays equal attention to the character of the ancient tree as to the likenesses of the figures resting beneath its boughs. The gnarled trunk of the aged oak is central to the composition, framing the woman under an outstretched branch, the shape of which is mirrored by a twisted twig or root on the ground below. The English artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) has depicted the young couple resting against a wooden fence on the edge of a field. The ripening corn glimpsed to the left reflects the last of the summer sunshine, while the autumnal hues of the oak and the bare fields on the right show the progress of the season. There is a sense of relaxed familiarity between the couple, their synchronised crossed feet and buckled shoes both pointing in the same direction. The woman engages the viewer with a half-smile, holding a drawing in one hand and a crayon in the other – perhaps the implements of an amateur artist. Standing out against the earth tones of the landscape setting, the man’s formal dark coat and red waistcoat are perhaps more at home in a townhouse parlour than on a country walk. In contrast, the colours of the young woman’s dress are in tune with the natural surroundings, the light brown tone almost merging with the scrubby tussock on which she rests. The discordant shape of her dress has recently been explained following x-ray imaging which showed that Gainsborough re-used this canvas and employed the expanse of the dress as a device to cover what was underneath. Dated to 1750, the canvas originally depicted a half-length portrait of a woman in a floppy cap, holding a rose corsage. Gainsborough turned the canvas upside down in order to paint the young couple, covering the area formerly showing the woman’s chin and lips with the unnatural shape of the skirt. It is unclear whether the original portrait was painted by Gainsborough himself, or if he re-used an existing canvas to economise on materials.

A Couple in a Landscape is typical of Gainsborough’s early career, when he was establishing himself as an artist in his home county of Suffolk. Born in Sudbury, the son of a wool manufacturer, Gainsborough’s artistic abilities led him to London, where he trained, before he returned to Ipswich in 1752 and set up his practice painting the local land-owning gentry. Gainsborough later moved to Bath and became one of the most sought-after portrait painters of the late eighteenth century. However, his personal preference was always for landscapes and his confidence in painting the English countryside is visible here. The masses of soft foliage in the background, the softly billowing clouds, brooding sky and closely observed texture of the decaying tree, reference the landscapes of seventeenth-century Dutch masters, such as Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–82), who Gainsborough greatly admired.

Currently on display

Thomas Gainsborough
c. 1753
Gallery 10
76.2 x 67 cm
Oil on canvas
Fairfax Murray Gift, 1911
Accession number
Adopted by Derek Austin in memory of his wife Doris, 2003