Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) was born in Sudbury, Suffolk to John and Mary Gainsborough, the youngest of nine children. As a boy, Gainsborough displayed an early talent for drawing and painting, spending much of his childhood sketching in the woods and fields surrounding Sudbury. It was here that his love of landscape painting first developed, a passion that would go on to become an abiding feature of his artistic career.
At the age of 13 Gainsborough left for London to train under the French painter and illustrator, Hubert-François Gravelot (1699–1773). There he became part of the artistic community surrounding St Martin’s Lane Academy, home to notable artists such as William Hogarth (1697–1762) and Francis Hayman (1708–1776).
After his marriage in 1746 to Margaret Burr (1728–1798), Gainsborough returned to Sudbury to work as a portrait painter for the local gentry and mercantile classes.
Soon exhausting the circle of potential patrons in Sudbury, Gainsborough moved with his wife and two daughters, Mary (1750–1826) and Margaret (1752–1820), to Ipswich in 1752. Although his skill as a portrait painter improved considerably during this period, it was not until the family took up residence in Bath in 1759 that Gainsborough began attracting more cosmopolitan and aristocratic clientele. Despite portraiture remaining more lucrative, Gainsborough continued to paint landscapes, often fusing the two genres within a single composition in innovative ways.
By 1774 Gainsborough had moved to London, probably inspired by the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768, of which he was a founding member.
In London Gainsborough resided in the west wing of Schomberg House on Pall Mall, holding regular exhibitions at his studio. The artist’s relationship with the Academy and its first president Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) proved to be uneasy, however, and by 1783, Gainsborough had stopped showing his work at its annual exhibitions.
Gainsborough continued to enjoy considerable success in his later career, becoming a favourite painter of King George III and his family. When he died in 1788 at the age of 61, Thomas Gainsborough was widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of his era. He is buried in Kew Churchyard, London, alongside his wife Margaret.