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Artist Thomas Gainsborough owed his career to double murder in family

PUBLISHED: 12:06 17 October 2018 | UPDATED: 12:21 17 October 2018

Gainsborough's House in Sudbury 
Picture: GAINSBOROUGH'S HOUSE

Gainsborough's House in Sudbury Picture: GAINSBOROUGH'S HOUSE

Archant

A double murder in the family of Thomas Gainsborough set him on his path to fame, it has been claimed after new research shed light on the early life of the world-renowned artist.

Sudbury town centre including the Thomas Gainsborough statue. Picture: GREGG BROWNSudbury town centre including the Thomas Gainsborough statue. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Research by Gainsborough’s House museum in Sudbury uncovered revelations about the artist’s uncle and cousin – both called Thomas Gainsborough – who were probably killed after being warned not to pursue a debt.

The separate murders, when the artist was aged just 11, were uncovered by Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough’s House, as part of his four-year research project into the family.

Just before his murder, the uncle remade his will and left £40 to Gainsborough to be put towards “a light handicraft”.

“While traumatic for a young Gainsborough, without these murders and the inheritance passed on to Gainsborough’s father, it is unlikely that Gainsborough would have afforded to train as an artist or indeed travelled to London,” said Mr Bills.

Mr and Mrs John Browne and their daughter, Anne Maria c. 1754-55, which is in the exhibition Picture: GAINSBOROUGH'S HOUSEMr and Mrs John Browne and their daughter, Anne Maria c. 1754-55, which is in the exhibition Picture: GAINSBOROUGH'S HOUSE

“It is extraordinary that despite hundreds of years of studying Gainsborough and numerous biographies, these key aspects of Gainsborough’s family history have only just been uncovered.”

Gainsborough’s uncle and cousin were pursuing a man named Richard Brock, who owed money to the family.

The pair were urged to stop and the Art Newspaper tracked down threatening letters sent in 1737/8 just before the separate murders.

One warning directed at the artist’s cousin read: “We will either shoot him or hang him up in gibbets.”

Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough's House Picture: ANDY HOWESMark Bills, director of Gainsborough's House Picture: ANDY HOWES

An ultimatum was issued to drop the claim against Brock, but within a week the cousin was dead.

The uncle continued to pursue the debt, but was killed six months later at the Golden Fleece pub in Cornhill in London, close to the coach stop from Sudbury.

The new research reveals Gainsborough, who was born in Sudbury in 1727, lived with the shadow of debt hanging over him as his own father was bankrupt.

Mr Bills added: “This would have had a key influence in Gainsborough’s motivations and decision making.

“He’d seen the impact of debt, and he went on to marry a woman with a guaranteed income, and this would have influenced his decision to undertake portraiture that provided income over his greater passion for painting landscapes.”

The research was undertaken in preparation for an important exhibition at Gainsborough’s House launched this month about the artist’s early life, bringing together previously unseen works.

Early Gainsborough: From the Obscurity of a Country Town will run from October 20, 2018, to February 17, 2019.

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