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Gainsborough: A Portrait


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Frank, lucid and modern, this is a fresh portrait of Thomas Gainsborough, the most sensuous artist of the eighteenth century.

About the Author

James Hamilton is an art and cultural historian. His books include TURNER: A LIFE, shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and A STRANGE BUSINESS: MAKING ART AND MONEY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN, which in 2014 was named Art Book of the Year by the SUNDAY TIMES. Hamilton was until retirement in 2013 curator of art collections and projects in Portsmouth, Wakefield, Sheffield, Leeds and the University of Birmingham, where he is a Fellow of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.


With great imaginative verve [Hamilton recreates] the social atmosphere of the places where the artist and his family settled ... [Hamilton] is constantly fascinating about the paintings ... His book is gorgeously illustrated and compulsively readable - the pages seem to turn themselves. Almost as good as owning a Gainsborough -- John Carey * Sunday Times *
A shrewd and entertaining biography ... Hamilton's approach is influenced by his perception that Gainsborough owed much to Hogarth ... This valuable insight informs both Hamilton's exploration of Gainsborough's art and his thorough and imaginative interpretation of the life ... Hamilton's book brings one of the very greatest [artists] vividly to life -- Robin Simon * Literary Review *
Colourful and thoughtful ... What Hamilton's vivid book makes clear is just how lucky some of his sitters were; what they got for their guineas was not simply a likeness of imperishable glamour, but the company of a man who was every bit as lively and engaging as his paintings -- Michael Prodger * The Times Book of the Week *
Although [Hamilton's] primary focus is the life rather than the work ... the vivid descriptions of Gainsborough's studio practice breathe an authentic whiff of turps and linseed oil into the story ... Highly readable and brilliantly reconstructed -- Michael Bird * Daily Telegraph *
Hamilton is a first-rate art historian ... He gives us deft explanations of mysterious artistic effects - Gainsborough's use of ground glass in the medium, and how he might have learnt about it, and what it does to the surface. But the question of money is Hamilton's core expertise: how much Gainsborough earned and how much of it went on necessary display, such as grand houses in Bath and Pall Mall. And fascinating it is, too ... Gainsborough is one of the most lovable of great artists, and his personality shines through. This is an enjoyable biography by a writer who understands him -- Philip Hensher * The Spectator *
[A] richly humane biography of the artist ... [An] astute yet generous book -- Kathryn Hughes * Guardian *
[A] wonderful new biography ... Hamilton is fascinating on Gainsborough's experimental and innovative technique, how he moved from what he calls the 'dabbing' of the artist's early paintings, with their more doll-like figures and outlines, to the characteristic loose sweeps, the 'brushing' style of his later work -- Lucy Lethbridge * Financial Times *
James Hamilton's wholly absorbing biography is very different from the usual kind of art historical study that often surrounds such a major figure as Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Hamilton is positively in love with his subject, and writes with verve and enthusiasm, yet grounds it on vast research with primary and secondary sources, all impeccably noted -- Marina Vaizey * The Arts Desk *
Hamilton's Gainsborough is a 'Jack-the-Lad', a 'swigging, gigging, kissing, drinking, fighting' good-time city boy in London and Bath ... [Hamilton] is strong both on the Gainsborough who is stirred by harvest gleaners and woodland cottages, and the Gainsborough who frets about his framing fees and boasts about the musical instruments he has bought ... [The book] gallops along at highwayman's pace -- Laura Freeman * Apollo Magazine *
Spendthrift, talking nineteen to the dozen, laddish, musical and often resentful of the sitters that he had to paint in order to earn a living ("confounded ugly creatures"), [Gainsborough] is brought to lively and likeable life in Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton. The painter was, Hamilton says, more serious about his art than he let on, but it is those trace elements of his personality that give his pictures their sparkle -- Michael Prodger * Sunday Times
Art Books of the Year 2017 *
This affectionate and intricately researched biography is a memorable account of Gainsborough as 'one of the most joyous eccentrics' of his time -- Jane Shilling * Daily Mail
Must Reads *
Were Mr and Mrs Andrews complete pricks? In his delightfully racy portrait of one of our most renowned British portraitists, the art historian James Hamilton suggests that Thomas Gainsborough's wedding picture of a pair of snooty Suffolk landowners is adorned with more pictures of penises than the wall of a public loo. This is just one of many new lights cast on Gainsborough, a "swigging, gigging, kissing, drinking, fighting" Jack-the-lad who, with his gift of the gab and his canny eye on the main chance, cavorts through Georgian England -- Rachel Campbell-Johnston * The Times
Art Books of the Year 2017 *
This account of the Georgian portrait painter's life is set against a backdrop of dirt and highwaymen and skeletons on gibbets on Hounslow Heath. An 18th-century Scottish sex therapist even makes an appearance. But for all the fun the author has with the painter's penchant for drink and sex, the writing really takes off when Hamilton engages with Gainsborough's paintings themselves in all their swimmy, silken sheen -- Teddy Jamieson * Sunday Herald
Books of the Year *
Glitters from beginning to end -- Jonathan Wright * Catholic Herald
Books of the Year *
A fine and empathetic portrait [of] a man who was as lively as his brushwork -- Michael Prodger * RA Magazine *
[Gainsborough's] tetchiness animates this enjoyable biography, which also shows how his techniques were ahead of their time * Daily Telegraph *

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