Text by Deanna MacDonald
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In Fanny Burney’s bestselling novel, “Evelina, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World” (1778), the innocent young heroine loses her way in a public pleasure garden and finds herself in the compromising company of ladies of the night. Gainsborough’s London was full of such ambiguous social situations. A new vogue for public places of entertainment - theatres, assembly rooms, parks, etc - among everyone from the aristocracy to the demi-monde meant that the respectable and disreputable often overlapped.
It is this world that is hinted at in ‘The Mall,” referring to the tree-lined walkway in the park of St. James Palace, which was a popular place for an elegant stroll. It was also where many prostitutes practiced their trade; James Boswell wrote of his frequent sexual encounters in the Park in the 1760s.
Gainsborough’s London residence, Schomberg House, was nearby in Pall Mall and he would have had many opportunities to observe the mixing of London society on the leafy Mall. The composition is unique for Gainsborough, who was best known as a portraitist, and was clearly inspired - as several contemporary critics noted - by the fêtes galantes of Watteau.
It depicts numerous ladies (and a token male in uniform) gliding through a bucolic landscape, evidence of Gainsborough’s abilities as a landscape painter and to his pioneering interest in the picturesque. As a young painter, Gainsborough had been inspired by Dutch landscape artists and might have made that his speciality if portraiture had not been so much more lucrative a business.
The women are rosy-cheeked (or is it rouge?) and depicted like exotic birds of paradise. The feathery foliage and rhythmic design inspired a contemporary to remark that the painting was “all aflutter, like a lady's fan.” Another claimed that Gainsborough composed the scene partly from dolls and a model of the park.
Considering the artist’s long career as a portraitists, it is unsurprising that some have suggested the figures are portraits: the central group of ladies are perhaps the daughters of King George III and the background figure under the tree to the right might be Gainsborough himself, though these claims are unsubstantiated. It might also simply be a representation of the see-and-be-seen atmosphere of the Mall; almost all the ladies glance curiously at their fellow strollers.
This was, after all, a world Gainsborough knew well. A skilled draftsmen and natural painter with a fluid, assured technique and a sharp eye for a beautiful woman, Gainsborough was in great demand among the Georgian cognoscenti. He was both celebrated and chastised in the press for his chic portrayals of fashionable women, be they countesses or courtesans. Gainsborough’s women were painstakingly elegant, luxuriously dressed, either wandering in wild landscapes or posing by classical ruins – it is near impossible, without titles, to tell a duchess from an actress.
But this ambiguity was clearly part of the age, and he was no less admired for it. After Gainsborough’s death, Sir Joshua Reynolds, his contemporary and fierce rival, said: "If ever a nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honourable distinction of an English school, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of Art, among the very first of that rising name."
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1782 Joshua Reynolds: Colonel Banastre Tarleton, London, National Gallery
1783 Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun: Portrait of the Duchesse de Polignac, Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, England
1784 Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii, Paris, Musée du Louvre