1727 - 1788
An Ox Team Resting Beside a Track

Pencil, black, red and white chalks on buff paper
Image size: 8 ½ x 10 inches (21.5 x 26.25 cm)
Contemporary gilt frame

Original labels on the reverse
Private collection of Leonard Borwick (1868-1925), the renowned English concert pianist
Bequeathed to Edward Richard Speyer, 1st Baronet and chairman to Underground Electric Railways Company of London (forerunner to London Underground).
Agnew’s 131st Annual Exhibition of Watercolours and Drawings, 2004

John Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, London 1972, p. 492, cat. no.1049

Gainsborough made many drawings after nature, and drew inspiration from the Northern European landscape tradition. This drawing is most likely to have been created after Gainsborough moved to Bath in 1759. Gainsborough’s move from his native Suffolk to the fashionable spa town coincided with a change of style. Whereas the influence of the Dutch manner is apparent in his earlier landscapes, those painted in Bath and subsequently London, became more pastoral and poetic.

Gainsborough’s landscape drawings appear remarkably simple, combining a limited group of motifs in a range of techniques to produce compositions of tremendous power and emotion. These are elements that Gainsborough continually returned to in his landscapes, combining and refining them to produce ever more impactful works.

In this lively and loosely sketched picture, a pair of Oxen punctuate this landscape. The view here is not only topographical but rather a poetic interpretation of the scenery. The apparent naturalism of the composition is, in fact, highly contrived, with a central path between the two masses of trees leading the eye to the sunlit landscape beyond, a device clearly derived from Ruisdael. A mood of afternoon pastoral contentment is established by the pair of Oxen resting by the wayside under the shade of the tree.

A similar tonality appears in a much larger drawing formerly owned by Marshall Spink of London. In his 1970 catalogue raisonne of Gainsborough’s drawings, John Hayes compares this drawing, on stylistic grounds, to a sophisticated drawing by Gainsborough of a ruined building. The chalk work in question ‘Wooded Landscape With Ruined Castle‘ is currently held in the Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham.

Gainsborough was an enthusiastic and accomplished draughtsman. More drawings survive by him than for any other British landscape artist in this period. Drawing for Gainsborough has been described as an act of love and recreation rather than a means of storing up information – though he did sometimes turn to his early studies for compositional ideas.

The portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough was born at Sudbury, Suffolk, the fifth son of a cloth merchant. He was apprenticed at the age of thirteen to a London silversmith, and was taught by Hubert Gravelot, a French book-illustrator. By 1745 he had established his own studio in London.

He married Margaret Burr in 1746, and by 1748 had taken up residence in Suffolk. He moved to Ipswich in 1752, and settled at Bath as a portraitist in 1759. He took as an apprentice his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont (1754-97) in 1772. There are no records of any other pupils or assistants. In 1774, established as a fashionable portrait painter, he moved to London, living at Schomberg House, Pall Mall.

Despite his great success as a portraitist, he always maintained that he preferred painting landscapes. He wrote to a friend, William Jackson: ‘I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village, where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of life in quietness and ease’ (in Woodall, p.115, no.56).

Gainsborough exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1761 to 1769, and became a foundation member of the Royal Academy in 1768. He first exhibited there the following year, but in 1773 quarrelled with the Academy over the hanging of his pictures, and did not exhibit there again until 1777. In 1784 he again quarrelled with them over the same subject, and never again exhibited at the Academy, instead organising a series of annual exhibitions in his studio at Schomberg House.

He received commissions from the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland in 1777, and from the King and Queen in 1781. He toured the West Country with Gainsborough Dupont in about 1782, and visited the Lake District with Samuel Kilderbee in 1783. Gainsborough died in London after a reconciliation with his great rival Sir Joshua Reynolds, who eulogised him at the Royal Academy, commenting that ‘whatever he attempted he carried to a high degree of excellence’ (R. Wark, ed., Sir Joshua Reynolds: Discourses on Art, New Haven and London 1975, p.254).