Art and landscape - Thomas Gainsborough's early work is explored at York Art Gallery

One of Britain’s best-loved artists, Thomas Gainsborough is probably best known for his portraiture – he was, alongside Joshua Reynolds, the leading portrait painter of the second half of the 18th century – but a new exhibition at York Art Gallery focuses on his early career and his love of landscapes.

Rosie Razzall, curator of prints and drawings for the Royal Collection Trust, admiring Gainsborough’s painting Cornard Wood at York Art Gallery. (James Hardisty).

On display for the very first time are 25 landscape drawings from the Royal Collection only recently reattributed to Gainsborough.

They were previously believed to have been by Edwin Landseer, having been acquired from his studio by Queen Victoria in 1874. They were bound in an album entitled “Sketches by Sir E Landseer” and housed for over a century in the Print Room at Windsor Castle.

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“No-one really questioned the provenance of the drawings, but then art historians and scholars started looking at them in more detail and realised that they were not really like other sketches by Landseer,” says Beatrice Bertram, senior curator at York Art Gallery.

Paper conservator Puneeta Sharma examines Gainsborough’s trees beside a lake, circa 1748-50, which features a large oil stain from the young artist’s studio. (Picture: The Royal Collection Trust).

“The turning point came in 2013 when the art historian Lindsay Stainton was going through them and identified one of them as a sketch by Gainsborough of his well-known landscape painting Cornard Wood, which led to the reattribution of the drawings to Gainsborough.”

The Royal Collection approached York Art Gallery in 2018 to be one of the partner galleries, alongside the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and Nottingham Castle, to which an exhibition of the drawings would tour. “We jumped at the chance when they asked us,” says Bertram. “It is really exciting – the drawings deserve to be shown and enjoyed by the public and it is wonderful to be the first gallery on the show’s tour.”

Young Gainsborough: Rediscovered Landscape Drawings offers fresh insight into his processes, reveals his enduring love of landscape and nature and demonstrates his prodigious youthful talent. “Early works always give us a new perspective,” says Bertram. “Gainsborough was a very young man at this point – he was only 19 or 20. It helps us to build a picture of his creative practice and to see how sophisticated his work was for a teenager. The play of light and shadow is exquisite.”

The youngest son of a cloth merchant from Sudbury in Suffolk, Gainsborough showed artistic promise from a very young age and spent much of his childhood creating landscape views of his home county.

Thomas Gainsborough, Study for Cornard Wood, c.1748 - (Credit Royal Collection Trust).

“As a boy, he would scamper out into the countryside in the early morning to make drawings which he would secrete around the house and his father would find them later,” says Bertram.

Gainsborough was still only in his early teens when he went to study art in London under the engraver Hubert Gravelot, but he continued his practice of drawing in the open air as he developed his skills – many of the drawings in the exhibition have visible pin holes in the corners suggesting that he attached them to a portable drawing board.

“He would sketch outside in front of his subject and then go back into his studio where he had a table on which he would create these mini-landscapes using broccoli for trees and stones, twigs and ferns and then use them to play with compositional ideas for his drawings,” adds Bertram. “You get a real sense of him being in his studio because some of the drawings have brown marks on them which are stains from where he accidentally tipped over a bottle of linseed oil.

“By this point in his career, Gainsborough had already started to work in portraiture – it was very lucrative – but he retained an enduring passion for landscapes. He was constantly making landscape drawings and paintings throughout his life and he was very proud of them.” Famously, much later in his career, in the 1760s, Gainsborough wrote: “I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to… walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease.”

To give the drawings some context, they are placed in the exhibition alongside other works from Gainsborough’s early years. Most notably the study of Cornard Wood is displayed next to the finished painting, newly conserved and on loan from the National Gallery in London.

“This is the first time the two have been side by side since they were in Gainsborough’s studio,” says Bertram. “You can look at the study which has been squared up with little numbers and you can see how he transferred that square by square to the finished canvas. Seeing the trajectory of his approach to landscape and the stories behind them, you can see a very careful, sensitive, thoughtful practice.”

The exhibition also explores Gainsborough’s early inspirations with a section looking at the formative influence that 17th century Dutch landscape painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan Wijnants had on the young artist. You can see in Gainsborough’s work his admiration of their naturalistic approach.

“Artists don’t work in isolation, they are always looking to their predecessors and we wanted to show that in the exhibition too,” says Bertram.

“We have an amazing Ruisdael on loan from the National Gallery – A Pool surrounded by Trees, and Two Sportsmen coursing a Hare. You can see the motifs and elements that Gainsborough was borrowing from those artists but the style is very much his own and I think the 17th century landscapes in the Netherlands, flat fields and winding paths, were quite similar to the Suffolk countryside in Gainsborough’s time.”

Another section of the exhibition considers Gainsborough’s drawing practice and use of materials. Most of the drawings are on a coarse paper – which would normally have been used for wrapping and packaging – imported from France. “He really liked that kind of paper because it allowed him to work in chalk,” says Bertram.

“It is so interesting because you can see the crease down the middle where the sheets were hung to dry during the paper-making process. Some of the drawings are on fine art paper from the Netherlands which had a smoother surface for more detailed work.”

A further fascinating aspect to the rediscovery of these works is that when conservators at Windsor Castle removed the drawings from their album, they found that on four of the sheets there were also drawings on the reverse. “In the exhibition they are displayed on a plinth so that both sides are visible,” says Bertram.

“On the back of one of the landscape drawings is the study of the head of a young woman which heralds his move into portraiture but it also shows how he was thinking about incorporating figures into his landscapes.”

Bertram is delighted that the drawings can now be shared with a wider audience, offering a fascinating glimpse into a period of Gainsborough’s career about which, up to this point, little has been known. “I have learnt a lot and am learning more about this brilliant artist and his relationship with and approach to landscape,” she says.

“It is such an interesting show and there probably won’t be another opportunity to see the drawings together alongside the paintings they inspired. The fact that they sat hidden away in an album for so many years and that we are finally able to show them is wonderful.”

Young Gainsborough: Rediscovered Landscape Drawings is at York Art Gallery until February 13, 2022. Adults £10, concessions available. Book online at