Gainsborough’s first full-length biography was by George Williams Fulcher, also from Sudbury, posthumously edited and completed by his son and published in 1856 (Fulcher having died the previous year). Fulcher’s account is highly readable and informative, although peppered with minor inaccuracies, and colorful and conjectural in equal parts. Fulcher naturally discusses the painting of Tom Pear Tree, although from a somewhat different perspective from that of Thicknesse. Fulcher prefigures the story earlier on, saying:
The house in which Gainsborough was born had a spacious and well-planted orchard annexed to it, and several of the trees are still standing that were there in the Painter’s boyhood. Amongst them is the Pear-tree, the robbery of which, as will be hereafter related, furnished his first attempt at portrait painting.
A chapter or two later, in his colouful Victorian way, Fulcher gives the story:
At the back of the house in which Gainsborough was born, there was, as we have observed, a spacious orchard. It was separated only by a slight fence from the public road, and the clusters of ripe fruit had long proved too strong a temptation for some of the passers-by. But no clue could be obtained likely to lead to the detection of the culprits, until one morning, young Gainsborough having risen very early, proceeded to a rustic summer house at the further end of the orchard, and there commenced a sketch of one of the picturesque trees in the enclosure. Whilst thus employed, he observed a man’s face peeping over the fence and looking most wistfully at the mellow pears. The youthful portrait-painter immediately made a sketch of his features, in which roguery and indolence, hope and fear, were happily blended; I dare not, evidently waited on, I would. After gazing about him, he proceeded to scale the fence and climb the tree, when Gainsborough emerged from his hiding place, and the man decamped. At breakfast, tom related the story, and laid upon the table a faithful likeness of the marauder, who was immediately known to be a man living in Sudbury. On being sent for and taxed with the felonious intent, he stoutly denied it, till the boy produced the portrait, and shewed him how he looked when about to break the eighth commandment. This juvenile effort was preserved for many years, and Gainsborough ultimately made a finished painting of it, under the title of “Tom Peartree’s Portrait.”
Interestingly, Fulcher’s account of how Gainsborough’s facility for accurate portraiture captured a thief comes immediately after his version of young Tom’s apprehension for forging his father’s signature.
When Fulcher deals with Thicknesse’s relationship with Gainsborough, he quotes in full Thicknesses’ account of being fooled by the Tom Pear Tree portrait, adding a footnote that, “Notwithstanding the lapse of a century, this figure is still preserved. It was discovered, some years ago, in an old summer-house on the premises which Gainsborough had occupied.”
Fulcher (the younger) on Thicknesse, “Within a month of his decease, his early patron, Thicknesse, published a brief memoir, “written,” he says, “in one day,”—of which we need not here say more, than that it deservedly enjoyed a fame of equal duration.” Another wry footnote comments on Thicknesse’s memoir, “The style of this curious publication is so defiant of all the rules of composition that alterations for grammar’s sake have been occasionally made in the quotations.” Possibly my favorite comment is, “Thicknesse, always guiltless of chronology”.
Fulcher, G.W. (1856). Life of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.
Thicknesse, Philip (1788). A sketch of the life and paintings of Thomas Gainsborough.