Making Waves - Why Are We Running This Prize Draw?

Renowned contemporary artist Maggi Hambling CBE is donating the wonderful painting Sun on breaking summer wave (2015)  to help raise funds for a major project at Gainsborough's House in Sudbury.

Director Mark Bills explains below why it is so important for art and for the town. 

Sudbury in Suffolk is a charming historic market town by the river Stour. Known for its silk weaving, which lives on today in three working silk mills, it is set within a sublime landscape that has been the inspiration for many artists. Its most famous son is Thomas Gainsborough, who was born here in 1727 and baptised at the dissentingchapel on Friars Street on May 14 that year. Gainsborough’s first biographer, Philip Thicknesse, recalled that during Gainsborough’s childhood, “there wasnot a picturesque clump of trees, noreven a single tree of beauty, no, nor hedge row… for some miles round about the place of his nativity, that he had not… perfectly in his mind’s eye.” All his life Gainsborough drew inspiration from the memory of his home town and his obituary in 1788 recorded this debt in noting that “nature was his teacher and the woods of Suffolk his Academy”.

The house in which he spent his childhood is on Gainsborough Street, a street renamed in 1897 in honour of the artist and in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It also marked Gainsborough’s importance to the town, further marked in 1913 when Princess Louise unveiled a statue of Gainsborough by the Australian Royal Academician Bertram MacKennal. It looks down benignly upon the market square. This ‘national monument’ to Gainsborough was followed in 1958 when Gainsborough’s childhood home was purchased for just over £5,000. Gainsborough’s House opened its doors on April 12, 1961 and has remained open ever since.

In recent years, however, the House has faced difficulties and struggled to realise the potential of this national treasure. The Grade I-listed Georgian townhouse, which has the largest collection of Gainsborough’s art in existence, cannot display some of the finest full-length paintings in its confined space and there is a need to create a major exhibition centre and provide inspiring learning and visitor facilities. Gainsborough is one of the great figures of British art who is equally important on the international stage and the House must seek to reflect this. It has also got a very important part to play in the county as a centre for art, and within the town, to draw visitors and be part of Sudbury’s revival. As NADFAS President Loyd Grossman CBE, reflected, “I believe that Gainsborough’s House has great potential as a centre for the study of 18th-century art, as an educational resource for children, as a resource for local artists – especially printmakersand as a contributor to the touristeconomy of Sudbury and Suffolk.” In the past two years, the presentation of Gainsborough’s House has been refreshed and plans for a lively future have begun. Visitor numbers have increased by one-third and the House offers an exciting exhibition, events and learning programme. Partnerships are already being developed with national and leading regional galleries, both in the UK and Europe. It is becoming a vibrant centre and at its heart is the Georgian townhouse and garden where the artist spent his childhood.

Historian Simon Schama found it “intimate, beautifully designed, saturated with the presence of the great painter himself with a wonderful sample of his portraits, landscapes and drawings from all periods of his prodigious career – anyone going there will have their knowledge and their feeling for this master transformed by the experience.” Importantly, the House is planning a major extension to bring to life the art and passion of Gainsborough to inspire a new generation of visitors with enjoyment and learning. The aim is to create a leading exhibition and dynamic cultural venue that is on the international art museum map. We want to build: a new centre that has a major Gainsborough display showing some of his greatest paintings that are currently in museum stores; an exhibition gallery that can deliver large-scale exhibitions and be a major draw for both repeat and new visitors from further afield; a landscape gallery which connects the building with countryside that Gainsborough painted through panoramic viewing points; and a contemporary gallery to complement the printmaking workshop on site, where visitors can view and purchase vibrant, contemporary responses to Gainsborough and Suffolk. Babergh District Council has got behind this vision by buying a neighbouring old labour exchange building to give Gainsborough’s House time to raise funds to purchase it.

The offer is time-limited. The plan is to remove the building and build an extension that is fit-for-purpose. In order to realise this vision we need help in raising the funds needed. As we began thinking about this, help came from another renowned artist born in Sudbury: Maggi Hambling CBE. Impressed and supportive of the plans, Maggi has given one of her great wave paintings, Sun on breaking summer wave (2015), to Gainsborough’s House in order that it might help raise funds and spearhead the campaign to achieve our vision. Like Gainsborough, Hambling has been rooted to and inspired by the Suffolk landscape. The recent National Gallery exhibition of her sea paintings, the Walls of Water series, was drawn from the county’s coast: “They were inspired by alarmingly, unnervingly high waves crashing against the sea wall at Southwold... It was nature at its most primeval threatening this genteel Suffolk seaside town,” she explains. Maggi has strong memories of Gainsborough’s House, which were so influential on her decision to become an artist. She recalls: “In 1945, my mother chose St Leonards Hospital in Sudbury to give birth to me: overdue and on the heavy side. This established my close bond with the town. I grew up in Hadleigh, some 12 miles away, and one afternoon we drove to Sudbury and visited Gainsborough’s House. “I don’t have much memory of being born, but the experience of seeing great painting for the first time remains with me to this day. I couldn’t believe thatcows or clouds, woods or dogs, trees or land could be made so real with paint. Or that so much activity could take place on such a small scale, within a gold frame. This childhood encounter was exciting and mysterious. “Experiencing another reality, apart from life (but of life) had a profound effect on my decision to become an artist.”

It is that transformational potential which Gainsborough’s House wants to develop in order to inspire a new generation. Maggi enjoys the intimacy of the House, something she feels must be maintained with a new building to complement the historic house and “finally make it possible for major exhibitions of historical and contemporary exhibitions”. These great houses, she feels, are so important to  the place within which they are set: Rembrandt’s House in Amsterdam, Rubens House in Antwerp, and Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury.

“These precious houses once lived in  by people are now inhabited by art, and must therefore be cherished for the future, because great art does not die.”