One of Thomas Gainsborough’s early paintings was of a man leaning on the top of a wall. Now known as Tom Pear Tree, the painting is at Ipswich.
There are several anecdotes about this painting, and maybe we’ll give more later, but for now here is Philip Thicknesse’s version. The irascible Thicknesse, who modestly claimed to be “the first man who perceived, though through clouds of bad colouring, what an accurate eye he possessed, and the truth of his drawings, and who dragged him from the obscurity of a Country Town”, wrote a biography of Gainsborough shortly after his death. In true Thicknessian fashion, about half the biography is devoted to a portrait of Thicknesse that Gainsborough never finished. Here is how Thicknesse relates his first encounter with Gainsborough’s work.
Soon after his [Gainsborough’s] remove to Ipswich I was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Land Guard Fort, not far distant, and while I was walking with the then printer and editor of the Ipswich journal, in a very pretty town garden of his, I perceived a melancholy faced countryman, with his arms locked together, leaning over the garden wall, I pointed him out to the printer, who was a very ingenious man, and he with great gravity of face, said the man had been there all day, that he pitied him, believing he was either mad, or miserable. I then stepped forward with an intention to speak to the mad man, and did not perceive, till I was close up, that it was a wooden man painted upon a shaped board. Mr. Creighton (I think that was the printer’s name) told me I had not been the only person this inimitable deception had imposed upon, for that many of his acquaintance had been led even to speak to it, before they perceived it to be a piece of art, and upon finding the artist himself lived in that town, I immediately procured his address, visited Mr. Gainsborough, and told him I came to chide him for having imposed a shadow instead of a substance upon me.
He came to chide, but stayed to praise, and later commissioned Gainsborough to paint a view of Land Guard Fort.
See William Lynch.
Thicknesse, Philip. 1788. A sketch of the life and paintings of Thomas Gainsborough.