When Sudbury Grammar School, founded in 1491, was demolished in 1858, a work of art was lost.
The school was a fine brick building with stone mullioned windows and an upper storey of timber and plaster.
GW Fulcher, poet, biographer, printer and Mayor of Sudbury had attended the school in the early 1800s and recalled some initials carved on the school wall. Near the initials “is a deep cut figure in the mouldering wall, an evident caricature of the schoolmaster, which it requires no great stretch of the imagination to attribute to the penknife of Master Gainsborough.” The schoolmaster was the Rev Humphrey Burroughs; the pupil was his nephew, Thomas Gainsborough.
It was only a short walk to school from young Tom’s home in Sepulchre Street (now Gainsborough Street), where he had been born in 1727, the ninth child of John and Mary Gainsborough. They acquired the house in 1725. In 1645 the estate was called Gibblins and the old external timbered features of the house are hidden by the red brick frontage known now as Gainsborough’s House.
John Gainsborough was a Dissenter who worked in woollen manufacture. “A fine man, careful of his personal appearance, an adroit fencer, kind to his spinners and also to his debtors, of good reputation, but not rigid in the matter of smuggling, enterprising and active in business” and the introducer of the Shroud trade from Coventry into Sudbury. He was also a Freeman of Sudbury.
John Gainsborough’s name does not appear in the Cocket books which contain the names of Freemen from 1657 to the present day. In 1703, the House of Commons ruled that the sons of Freemen and those who had served apprenticeships in the Borough, were entitled to vote as Freemen without any formal admission or taking of an oath.
However, There is “an account of the names of such persons as are free of the said Borough and Commons thereunto belonging, who put their cattle to despasture and feed upon Portman’s Croft, the Great Common, Kings Marsh and Fullingpit Meadow this second day of June 1729”. John’s name appears as he paid 3 shillings “to despasture a horse.”
John’s father Robert Gainsborough was entered in the Cocket book in 1666. He appears to be the first Gainsborough to be admitted as a Sudbury Freeman. He is described as the son of Robert Gainsberry of Ipswich and admitted on the 25th June 1666. It is assumed that Robert acquired the Freedom by purchase. Acquiring the Freedom by purchase or gift was stopped in the mid 1800s and admission by inheritance or by apprenticeship remain the only means of entry.
Like John Gainsborough, Robert’s other sons, Robert (b.1673) and Thomas (b. 1678) do not appear in the Cocket books. However, in the archives of the Suffolk Record Office, there is a book prepared in 1703, possibly in connection with a controversial Parliamentary election. It names Free Burgesses of the Borough of Sudbury in the County of Suffolk. It lists Robert Gainsborough “Chiefe Burgess” and his sons Robert and Thomas. Their brother John, born in 1683 was not named as he was under 21 and not yet entitled to become a Freeman.
Thomas Gainsborough, artist and son of John is also absent from the Cocket books. However, he inherited the right to be a Freeman as the son of a Freeman and he exercised his rights as a Freeman to vote in Parliamentary elections.
According to GW Fulcher, Thomas Gainsborough was a Tory. There is an account of Thomas borrowing £300 from Thomas Fonnereau, a Member of Parliament for Sudbury from 1741 to 1768. Despite the loan, Thomas Gainsborough allegedly voted for the opposing candidate.
Gainsborough’s brothers John and Humphry were admitted as Freemen in 1772. Humphry was Minister of the Congregational Church of Henley upon Thames, but better known as an engineer and inventor. John lived in Sudbury and was known as Scheming Jack, an eccentric character who made some copper wings and tried to fly. He also dabbled in painting. His artist brother Thomas once remarked that Jack’s painting of the Kings Arms outside the Old Moot Hall was the only thing he ever finished.
Thomas Gainsborough, artist and Freeman of Sudbury knew and loved the landscape around Sudbury, growing up in Sepulchre Street, moments from the Stour and the Freemen’s meadows. He had roamed the meadows and woods sketching when he should have been at school. His talents led him to London as a teenager but he returned to Sudbury to live in Friars Street on the north corner of Bullocks Lane, where he remained for some years with his wife Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort.
In 2017, 26 drawings in The Royal Collection, previously attributed to Landseer, were discovered to be by Gainsborough. All the sketches are considered to be depictions of landscapes around Sudbury. One drawing, in particular relates exactly to his painting of Cornard Wood. In a letter, Gainsborough wrote” It is in some respects a little in the schoolboy stile but I do not reflect on this without secret gratification, for as an early instance, how strong my inclination stood for Landskip, this picture was actually painted at Sudbury in the year 1748”.
Gainsborough is best known for portraits “the curs’d face business”, which earned him a living, but landscape was his love. Gainsborough’s friend and biographer Philip Thicknesse wrote “there was not a Picturesque clump of Trees, nor even a single Tree of beauty nor hedge row… for some miles around the place of his nativity, that he had not so perfectly in his mind’s eye.”
There are two landscape compositions by Gainsborough in the George III Topographical Collection at the British Library. One dates from 1747and is entitled “A view near to Sudbury in Suffolk”.
It is an engraving by John Boydell reproducing Gainsborough’s drawing which is now lost. The exact location is not given. It shows a formal landscape with ponds, trees and some buildings in the distance – perhaps Sudbury itself – hence the title of the piece. Was this a view of an estate near Sudbury or perhaps the meadows around Sudbury in the style of a formal parkland? Gainsborough was once asked by the Earl of Hardwicke to reproduce a true view of his estate in a landscape painting. Gainsborough replied “if his Lordship wishes to have anything tolerable of the name of Gainsborough, the subject altogether, as well as the figures etc must be of his own Brain.”
Gainsborough lived much of his life away from Sudbury and is buried at St Anne’s Church, Kew, but his parents and other close relatives are buried at All Saints Church, Sudbury. Nevertheless, Thomas Gainsborough is remembered as Sudbury’s most famous son. His statue unveiled in 1913 stands proudly and prominently on Market Hill. Many of his works are held in his birthplace, now a Museum dedicated to his life. There have been exhibitions of his paintings in London and elsewhere. There are many biographies and articles too, but for anyone who wants to understand the influence of landscape on Thomas Gainsborough throughout his life, a walk on Sudbury’s riverside meadows, the oldest continuously grazed pasture in East Anglia, preserved by their relationship with the Freemen of which Gainsborough was one, will connect us most directly with his work and his inspiration.
(Mrs John Fulcher Amey)
F C D Sperling: Hodson’s History of The Borough of Sudbury (1896)
C G Grimwood and S A Kay: History of Sudbury Suffolk (1952)
Allan W Berry: Suffolk Country Town A Sudbury Miscellany (1997)
Rev. Charles Badham: All Saints Church Sudbury (1852)
Guiseppe Gatt: Gainsborough (1968)
Peter Moore: Thomas Gainsborough and the making of the Suffolk Landscape
G W Fulcher: Life of Thomas Gainsborough RA (1856)
Philip Thicknesse: A Sketch of the Life and Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough