Portrait of an era

Most paintings have their own built-in sound effects and for that reason take well to the television screen. If a film crew was to apply its imagination to this painting by Gainsborough, we would be hearing musical fragments, birds twittering, a spaniel occasionally barking, the rustle of taffeta, hushed tones of a conversation. It's inherent in the picture and not unlike the turning on of a light switch in a dark room; the light is as much a part of the room as the dark but the switch must be flicked.

The lens of the camera is equally effective. With its prowling lens it enlarges details, focuses on faces, activates all potential movement, and enters the actual scene.

How much more this painting comes alive if we, as the impersonal camera lens, step into its world. Thomas Gainsborough, the most sought-after portraitist of the day, has chosen to paint the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland strolling in the grounds of Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Great Park, while in the corner the Duchess's sister, Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, sits in attendance, elegantly sketching.

The painting is alive with music, as was the period and the society here portrayed. Gainsborough himself adored music and entertained friends by playing the harpsicord and the viola da gamba. But whether or not a string quartet was hidden in that feathery grove of trees, (which was quite conceivable) the sweet, finely structured sounds of Mozart are an integral part of this painting. Indeed, the slow, stately gait of the couple, the graceful tilt of Lady Elizabeth's head, the poised postures and the pointed toes all have as much naturalness as the pomp and ceremony of opera.

This is not meant as criticism but rather as a comment on the world depicted here. It was an era of such utter refinement in taste that every color, design and gesture was monitored for its artistically restrained effect. All was dedicated to the great god artifice. To the Georgian ruling classes, the world was indeed a stage; clothes were costumes, landscapes were scenery, things were props and life, the substance of the play.

The year was 1783, a mere seven years after the start of England's infuriating, if not humiliating, war with her American colonies and six years before the chilling French Revolution. But the Duke and Duchess did not leave even a clue that such highly significant wars were electrifying the atmosphere. They are still as finely composed and indifferently superior as before all this fuss occurred. It appears to have made little difference to them that at the very core of the American Revolution was an outrage aimed at this unflappable and implacable social structure of theirs, in which the total control of life belonged to the aristocracy.

But try as we may to come to grips with 18th-century England -- its cold injustices and its robust joys, its delicate sensibilities and its filthy stench -- we can only get blurry glimpses of what it was like. Just as life in the future can only be guessed at, "the past is foreign country; they do things differently there."

Being part of that period and sympathetic with its values, Gainsborough was able to understand what the leading characters of the play wanted and therefore provided it for them exquisitely.

The aristocracy loved froth and Gainsborough could paint it. Indeed, we are looking at a delicious meringue, with satin, silk, lace and leaves whipped up to pure confection. It's as solid as an illusion, that is, except for the faces. Gainsborough painted people. He may place them in a leafy fantasy; they may be dressed in gauzy dreams, but Gainsborough never lost his eye for what made a person special. He knew how to obtain a living likeness, but he didn't try to flatter. And yet, neither did he threaten his clients with critical insight. He painted them with an almost fatherly affection. The affable Gainsborough would never have mocked his clients. He simply painted them the way they were, and because they were who they were their contemporaries would never have thought of smiling.

Portrait after portrait, Gainsborough managed to find something he liked in the face and concentrated his considerable talent to bring out what he saw. It is true that these patrician faces are controlled and remote, with "cold pleasant stares," as Henry James was to describe them a century later. But this was the image they wanted to affect: any show of emotion left that person vulnerable to those who perceived it. But it is very much a tribute to Gainsborough that such invulnerable faces come across as real individuals rather than as masks in a lifetime of masquerades.

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