Gainsborough’s Family Album
National Portrait Gallery, London
On 15 July 1746 a Mr Thomas Gainsborough married a Miss Margaret Burr at St George’s Chapel, Curzon Street. The groom was the son of a bankrupt draper turned postmaster in Sudbury, Suffolk; the bride was the illegitimate daughter of the third Duke of Beaufort, with an annuity of £200 a year.
At just 19, Gainsborough was already something of a prodigy, with an independent portrait studio in London. But success in his profession in the eighteenth century took more than talent: it required a veneer of gentility, which Margaret’s private income – and wrong-side-of-the-blanket ancestry – helped supply. An early portrait shows the upwardly mobile couple with their first daughter, who died in infancy, posing like members of the squirearchy in the Suffolk countryside, she in shimmering blue satin, he in a red silk waistcoat with a middle button nonchalantly undone.