A Triple Portrait

I often get asked to lecture about gardens and landscapes in art, and although I like talking about pictures that people probably don’t know, I always like to include one that everybody thinks they know very well but actually probably don’t.

As you will probably have gathered it’s Gainsborough’s famous double portrait Mr & Mrs Andrews.  Despite its popularity I think there still a lot of things that viewers don’t always notice, and certainly the background story to the painting is usually something of a surprise.

So who are the lucky couple?  They are an East Anglian gentry couple, Robert and Frances Andrews, who had married in the prosperous market town of Sudbury in 1748, a couple of years before the portrait was painted.

Robert was born in 1725 and had been at Sudbury Grammar School where a fellow pupil was Thomas Gainsborough. His father was a wealthy local merchant and banker who was climbing the social ladder, buying land and transforming himself into a gentleman. Robert  had gone on to Oxford in 1744 but, like so many others, left without taking a degree and instead returned home to the family estate at Bulmer on the Essex side  of the river Stour which divided the county from Suffolk. There he began a programme of agricultural improvements in the spirit of the Agricultural Revolution that was sweeping the country, but particularly East Anglia, at the time.

Frances  Carter was about 7 years younger than her husband but came from the same parish , so, as the National Gallery commentary on the painting says, “when Robert Andrews married her he was not quite marrying the girl next door, but probably the nearest marriageable girl of his own class.”  Like Robert’s family hers were equally socially aspirational, moving from commerce into land and gentility. But this is not a picture painted to celebrate their marriage but about two years later and is more easily understandable as a statement of “arrival” at their new status.

The marriage of Frances and Robert was, as was often the case, quite likely to have been a bit of a dynastic match.  Their two fathers jointly owned an estate called Auberies and the marriage was  quite likely planned to consolidate the holding and set up their children as landowning gentlefolk.  Robert was eventually going to inherit his father’s half and seems to have been promised the other half on his new father-in-law’s death. Sadly he did not have long to wait, as William Carter died just a fortnight after they married.  His own father died in 1750 and Robert aged about 24, inherited his father’s property and business, and was now the proud possessor of about 3000 acres. Was  this portrait  Robert’s way of marking his new position as a comfortably-off rural squire. If so  there is a strong argument that this is not a double portrait of Mr & Mrs Andrews but  a triple one :  Mr & Mrs Andrews and their land.

The painting is unusual  in several ways.  Its  format is wide and the landscape is not just a background as it is in most portraits, but at least an equal part of the composition.  Look at other Gainsborough portraits and they are usually “upright” with generally non-specific and vague backgrounds, while his landscapes tended to be of woodland and wilder less cultivated scenes. Such a close-up view of “working” farmland and such long views into countryside is rare

Its structure is unusual too. In previous posts I have discussed the “new” 18thc genre of conversation pieces by artists like Arthur Devis. There the figures tend to fill the foreground and, even if the landscape is specific rather than invented as it often was, it plays second fiddle to the human subjects.  Here the figures are off-centre, only occupying less than half the canvas,  rather than dominating the whole scene as might be expected, and when you look more carefully is the difference in scale of their bodies merely one of perspective?

The scale is also different with many conversation pieces being quite small and this being relatively large at 70cmx 120cm  [28×47 in]. Perhaps that could be explained if it was commissioned for a specific spot such as an overmantel?

What does it tell us about the people? Robert Andrews is clearly playing his new role as the gentleman farmer. He’s wearing a  baggy shooting jacket and, tucked under  his arm, a long-barrelled shotgun with  all  its accoutrements – the  bags of powder and shot visible  in his pocket  and the gun-dog  attentively watching him.

You can imagine Gainsborough painting this from life outside  in situ , although I’m sure he didn’t since  plein air painting doesn’t really start until for at least another 50 or 60 years. Artists certainly sketched on site  but then took the sketches back to the studio to paint.

On the other hand I can’t imagine Frances Andrews  posing dressed like that in the middle of a field. Unlike her husband she looks uncomfortable, sitting ramrod straight on the bench. The shoes not only look uncomfortable but are surely for indoor use only. The National Gallery notes suggest the pale blue skirt and jacket are “informal” which, although I’m not a fashionista, seems a bit unlikely.  Of course they’re not court clothes as seen in posts about Mrs Delany, but I’d doubt that Frances wore clothes like that everyday around the house – I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong about that.

I’m also tempted to ask either if she’s wearing hand-me-downs from her mother – or at least an altered version thereof – just compare the two dresses, and indeed poses. But then I looked at other Gainsborough portraits and guess what – very similar pale blue silk frocks appear in several others painted around the same time, including a family self-portrait. Was it  a fashionable colour & style or maybe a studio prop or his wife’s favourite that he borrowed for portraits?


So how was it painted? 

The likelihood is that Gainsborough sketched them to get their general shapes and sizes fixed and to perfect their facial features but otherwise probably used a mannequin dressed and posed in the appropriate position.

The couple are shown under an oak tree ostensibly where the parkland in front of their house borders their more productive farmland. They are looking at Auberies itself , which stands about 200 yards in front of them and closer than the openness of the landscape might imply.  But maybe the house is invisible because it’s not important in the great scheme of things, especially as Robert was about to pull it down and rebuild. This picture is about the land and the couple’s place in it.  Even the way Robert is standing with his feet by the oak roots is telling.

Couple in a Landscape, 1753
Dulwich Picture gallery

Oak trees are conventionally seen as representing England and tradition,  they are deep-rooted in the countryside and often used as the background settings for portraits including by Gainsborough. It’s surely  that sense of stability and place that the Andrews are, consciously or unconsciously, invoking.  Incidentally the oak is still there although the  the family and their house have both long gone.

The tower of Long Melford

The couple stand to one side  because they want the viewer to see the landscape  in all its glory. Gainsborough’s portrayal of the Stour valley  is, according to the National Gallery, the most accurate landscape depiction in any of his pictures.

All Saints, Sudbury

There are two local church towers to be seen. Long Melford’s is in the distance on left of Robert, while the church in which they were married, All Saints in Sudbury,   can be glimpsed peeping out between the trees in the central distance.

Elsewhere can be seen some of the farm outbuildings at Frances’s old home, as well as blocks of woodland that they owned .

In fact, James Hamilton, Gainsborough’s most recent biographer, reckons that,  although its accurate in individual elements,  Gainsborough “reconstructs the landscape to show far more than can be seen from that spot, then or now.” In other words the view is contrived, with slightly differing viewpopints being used/merged to create a single credible view.

The overwhelming sense the picture gives is of order. Robert, has taken control of the land and Nature and is exploiting it efficiently.  This can most clearly be seen in the a newly harvested cornfield with its stooks of corn neatly stacked, and with the straightness of the planting lines clearly evident. While we think nothing of such regularity it’s  a sign of Robert’s great interest in practical farming, which is confirmed by agricultural writer Arthur Young who mentions him seevral times in his Annals of Agriculture, including a contribution   “On the Smut in Wheat” published in 1768. He tells his readers that he ” had viewed Mr Andrew’s farm before and found him a very able cultivator… one of the most careful and practical farmers I have anywhere met with.”

To get those clean straight lines Robert was, almost certainly using a mechanised seed drill, and possibly a horse hoe, invented by Jethro Tull.  But  again Gainsborough has played with the topography to increase its significance. The wheat-field while not invented has been shifted much closer to the house than it is likely to have been in order to make sure the viewer gets the message.

In the middle distance on the left you can make out herds of cattle, and on the right  sheep safely grazing behind a five-barred gate. Again accurate in detail but not topography since in reality apparently that field is on a steep upward slope.

Was the “twisting” of accuracy an experiment by Gainsborough or was it more likely to be the result of a  specific request of the sitters to show the extent of their landholding?  That would certainly tie in with the analysis of John Berger who argued that the picture  is quite simply visual evidence of landowning capitalism. While there were plenty of contemporaries of the Andrews who saw the “picturesque” qualities of landscape, Berger argues that to the Andrews it’s the wealth of the fields and the income they yield that really matter.

Landscape painting was Gainsborough’s favourite genre but sadly it didn’t pay the bills which is why he turned to portraiture. However in this commission he was able to give free range to his interest in landscape whilst still claiming it was a double portrait. He also experimented with portraying cloudscape and weather which was still an unusual thing for an artist to try and capture naturalistically. In particular he  caught the changeable nature of light and shadow moving across the ground as the clouds move above them.

There is one real mystery about the painting, which if you have not noticed so far you will never miss when you see it again.  Gainsborough left the picture unfinished.  Look at  Mrs Andrew’s lap.  There is an egg-shaped patch of primed but uncoloured canvas.  Was that reserved for a pheasant or some other game bird shot by Robert and proudly presented to his wife?  Was it to be for a book or a workbag for some polite ladylike occupation? Or perhaps it was it deliberately left empty for Gainsborough to add a baby at some point in the future?  Did Frances  know she might well have been pregnant, as their first child of nine was born in 1751.  That would have completed Robert’s arrival as a gentleman – being able to display his heir would, as the National Gallery notes tactfully put it, “demonstrate Robert’s productive husbandry at home as well as on his estates”.

James Hamilton has provoked quite considerable controversy by outlining a more salacious alternative  reading of the painting, so  only read the next paragraph or two  if you’re happy reading about sexual innuendo  in the 18thc.   First of all he wonders if the object that Frances might have been holding was not  the outline for a  pheasant feather but a penis.

Before you laugh he goes on to link this with a re-reading of Robert too. Take a look  at the powder bag in his pocket and what he appears to be holding in his hand, and think what else they might resemble.  There are also possible analogies with the long gun which is by Robert’s crotch and which has, in his words,  “an explosive purpose.”

There is also evidence that Gainsborough “was also very sexually active and had no qualms about showing it” and there is at least one other example  another a pun & doodle by Gainsborough in a letter about his wife’s guardian , a Mrs Itchenor or “Mrs Itch in here” which is accompanied by what can fairly be interpreted as a vulva.

Before we dismiss all this as psycho-nonsense as some critics have done there is a less explored side to the story. Gainsborough’s father, a clothier in Sudbury, had gone bankrupt in 1733 and his  family had been “saved” by Mrs Andrew’s father so  I can’t help wondering if Gainsborough was a mix of both grateful and resentful. Surely it coloured his view of the couple and their view of him.

It leaves another question to be answered. Why would a painting like this be left unfinished and delivered and accepted as such?  If the gap was intended to be filled with a baby, pheasant, book or work-bag what was the problem, it could have been painted very quickly.  But it wasn’t, Hamilton suggests quite cogently that the most likely reason is a row of some sort, a fundamental disagreement which could not be resolved.  Gainsborough was known to have been volatile, and for example to have slashed another painting refused by its patron, and paint over another early portrait.  He wonders too if the inclusion of two donkeys in an enclosure in the distance was also a silent jibe at Robert and Frances trapped in their dynastic marraige?

It’s also worth noting that the painting was never given a title,  and unlike many of Gainsborough’s works was never engraved, and indeed never referred to by Gainsborough again. It was Hamilton says as if the painting  was  “put away like a mad aunt” until the 20thc . Whether he is right or wrong sadly we’ll probably never know what happened.     

Frances was 48 when she died in 1780. Rober remarried and lived on until he was 80. They are buried side by side in Bulmer’s  churchyard.  Unfortuantely the idea of creating a landed dynasty didn’t work. Just a few months after Robert’s death in 1806 his heirs sold the estate for £30,000, and the new owners demolished and rebuilt the house by 1810.

Neverthless the modern eye sees Mr & Mrs Andrews   as perhaps the archetypal English landscape painting but you might be surprised to know that’s a very recent judgement.   The painting remained  family hands, largly unknown, until 1927  when George Andrews lent it to  Gainsborough’s  Bicentenary exhibition at Ipswich.  That started a journey in the public imagination and over the next 25  years Mr & Mrs Andrews appeared regularly in exhibitions, until in 1953 they hit the big time  as one of just 4 British paintings sent to an exhibition in Paris  to mark the queen’s coronation.

The family finally decided to sell it in 1960 and it was bought by the National Gallery for £130,000.   It is now one of their  most popular pictures, but I wonder how many people look beyond the obvious?










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4 Responses to A Triple Portrait

  1. Christine Hodgetts says:

    What always strikes me is the apparent clumbsiness of the feet. they are too far forward. How long must her legs have been? Even allowing for voluminous petticoats the skirts don’t seem to respect the position of the legs.

  2. cboot says:

    I was told, many years ago (by a friend who then worked at the National Gallery), that the same couple appear in the nearby painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’. The dates may not quite be right, but it’s a nice idea? Perhaps the young girls turning away from the experiment are their daughter(s)? The clothes look similar, although the woman’s dress is now trimmed with ermine. Hey ho!
    It is a really good read, the biography, and indeed this article!

  3. Fascinating. Thank you.

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