Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 in Sudbury, Suffolk, England. His father was a schoolteacher involved with the wool trade. At the age of fourteen he impressed his father with his pencilling skills so that he let him go to London to study art in 1740. In London he first trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot but eventually became associated with William Hogarth and his school. One of his mentors was Francis Hayman. In those years he contributed to the decoration of what is now the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children and the supper boxes at Vauxhall Gardens.
In the 1740s, Gainsborough married Margaret Burr whose illegitimate father, The Duke of Beaufort, gave them a £200 annuity. His work, which was mainly composed of landscape paintings, was not selling very well. He returned to Sudbury in 1748–1749 and concentrated on the painting of portraits.
In 1752, he and family, now including two daughters, moved to Ipswich. Commissions for personal portraits increased but his clientele included mainly local merchants and squires. He had to borrow against his wife's annuity.
In 1759, Gainsborough and his family moved to Bath from Ipswich at the instigation, it is said, of the eccentric Philip Thicknesse—although the fact that his sister, Mrs Mary Gibbon, kept a lodging house in the city, close to Abbey Churchyard, may well have influenced his decision. He stayed at Mrs Gibbon's home after his arrival in Bath, using a room facing the south-west door of the abbey as a studio.
At that time visiting artists were invited to display their work in the Pump Room, with their scale of charges, and Gainsborough took prompt advantage of this facility. The quality of his work was quickly recognised, and commissions for portraits began to flow in. During his first months in the city he charged five guineas for a portrait, and as he became established, he increased the rate to a hundred guineas for a full length portrait, forty guineas for a half-length, and five guineas for a head. Soon he was ready to move to more commodious premises, and late in 1763 he wrote to his friend James Unwin: 'I have taken a house about three-quarters of a mile in the Lansdown Road: it is sweetly situated, and I have every convenience I could wish for. I pay thirty pounds a year...' Three years later he felt confident enough to move to the Circus, and to rent one of the newly-completed houses there, at two hundred guineas a year.
There he studied portraits by van Dyck and was eventually able to attract better-paying high society clientele. In 1761 he began to send work to the Society of Arts exhibition in London (now the Royal Society of Arts, of which he was one of the earliest members) and from 1769 to the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions. He selected portraits of known or notorious clients to attract attention. Exhibitions helped him to gain a national reputation and he was invited to become one of the founding members of Royal Academy in 1769. His relationship with the academy, however, was not an easy one and he stopped exhibiting his paintings there in 1773.
The houses in the Circus were not numbered at that time, and Gainsborough always gave his address simply as 'Mr Gainsborough, Bath'. It was originally thought that his house was 24, and in June 1902 a bronze tablet was unveiled there by Sir Walter Armstrong, a noted authority on the painter's work. But after detailed research into the rate books of the period, it was proved that the house he rented was 17; and late in 1971 the plaque was transferred to its present position.
During the years he spent in Bath, Gainsborough painted the portraits of Lord Chesterfield, Garrick, Sterne, Richardson, Sheridan, Burke, James Quin, Elizabeth Linley and many others. One of his most famous paintings, The Blue Boy, was probably completed during his stay in the city, and clearly reflects his admiration for Van Dyck. The model for the portrait was Jonathan Buttall, the son of one of Gainsborough's friends who was a prosperous ironmonger in London's Soho.
Gainsborough left Bath in 1774 after a quarrel with Thicknesse, and settled in London, where his work continued to attract fashionable patronage. In 1777 he again began to exhibit his paintings in the Royal Academy, with portraits of contemporary celebrities, including the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland, related to the royal family. These exhibitions continued for the next six years.
In 1780, he painted the portraits of King George III and his queen and afterwards received many royal commissions. This gave him some influence with the Academy to state in what form he wished his work to be exhibited. However, in 1783 he took his paintings from the forthcoming exhibition and moved them to Schomberg House. In 1784, royal painter Allan Ramsay died and the King was obliged to give the job to Gainsborough's rival and Academy president, Joshua Reynolds. Gainsborough still remained the favourite painter of the Royal Family.
In his later years, he often painted landscapes of common settings. With Richard Wilson, he was one of the originators of the eighteenth-century British landscape school, and with Joshua Reynolds, he was the dominant British portraitist of the second half of the 18th century.
Gainsborough painted more from his observations of nature than from any application of formal rules. The poetic sensibility of his paintings caused Constable to say, "On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them." He himself said, "I'm sick of portraits, and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips (sic) and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease."
His best works, such as Portrait of Mrs. Graham; Mary and Margaret: The Painter's Daughters; William Hallett and His Wife Elizabeth, nee Stephen, known as The Morning Walk; and Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher, display the uniqueness (individuality) of his subjects. His only assistant was his nephew Gainsborough Dupont.
Gainsborough on 2 August 1788 in his 62nd year, after contracting a chill which developed into a cancerous tumour of the neck at the trial of Warren Hastings. His last words were: 'We are going to Heaven, and Van Dyck is of the company'.
From Wikipedia and They Came to Bath.