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Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
Dr Rice Charleton
circa 1764
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Dr Rice Charleton is shown full-length in a natural manner as if he has just walked into our view. His clothes and hairstyle reflect the fashion of the day: he wears a three-quarter-length coat with deep cuffs and gold buttons and a three-cornered hat. The background landscape is painted with relish: Gainsborough began his career as a specialist in landscape, much influenced by the French and Dutch styles.

There is nothing overstated about the portrait. We can imagine the Doctor talking a regular walk in the local landscape, wearing the clothes that we see him in now.

If your class were to have their portraits made to show their 'natural' dress and habits, how and where would they choose to be painted?

In this portrait, it seems as if the sitter has nothing to prove; that his position within society is secure and clearly understood. In fact, Dr Rice Charleton owned several works by Gainsborough, given to him in exchange for treatment, which tells us that the doctor would have enjoyed a privileged place in society.

The painting is constructed in such a subtle way that it becomes difficult to spot its artificiality. The foliage frames the figure whilst the diagonal of the cane creates a sense of depth and suggests the path that the doctor has just taken. The subject looks sideways and down, mirroring the diagonal created by the position of his feet. His expression is soft but self-contained, as if the most important relationship is not between him and the viewer but between him and his thoughts or his contemplation of nature. He seems to possess a quiet dignity, defined by this lack of showiness.

What kind of values do you think the portrait promotes?
Although this portrait seems at first glance spontaneous and straightforward, it is actually constructing an idea of 'the natural' rooted in a particular time and place.
Would you say that the portrait is more based on observation or insight into the subject’s character?

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was born in Suffolk, but trained in London where he met the leading craftsmen of the day, becoming aware of continental artistic trends without going abroad himself. Between 1748 and 1759 he set up a successful portrait practice in his native Suffolk, producing images of the local gentry. He also sketched and painted landscapes for his own amusement throughout his life; this interest can be seen most vividly in the backgrounds for some of his portraits.

He later moved to the fashionable spa of Bath and became an overnight success, enabling him to demand ever-higher prices for his works.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)  Dr Rice Charleton   circa 1764
Materials and technique: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 229 x 152 cm
Holburne Museum: A365
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