My Dear Maggotty Sir

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If the figures of history are paraded before the mind’s eye, century by century, once the 1750s are reached one seems suddenly to be looking through a zoom lens. The procession of more-or-less august personages, remote and rather incomprehensible, conventionally portrayed and stiffly posed, and speaking or writing in stilted formulae, is elbowed aside by an animated and colourful crowd, all in close focus. Their faces and their pens are equally lively: here at last are men and women with whom we would like to converse, at whose jokes we could laugh, and with whom it would be our good fortune to become friends.

One does not have far to look for the reasons. British portrait painting was entering its most glorious period, lifted to the highest level by native-born painters like Allan Ramsay, Henry Raeburn, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence. If this was partly the result of an increase in self-awareness among the sitters, then perhaps this also explains the outburst of correspondence and journal-keeping at the same time from, for example, Horace Walpole, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the poets Thomas Gray and William Cowper, Fanny Burney, James Boswell and Parson Woodforde. Most people, if the name of Thomas Gainsborough were thrown into the ring, would be more than happy to add him to our list of painters. It is only those lucky enough to have come across his letters who will know that he is also more than worthy of inclusion in the ranks of the writers.

In trying to pin down the qualities that make his paintings so outstanding people have used phrases like ‘shimmering fluency’. Something of the same can be discerned in the letters, which are immediate, sparkling, conversational in their flow. The Reverend Sir Henry Bate-Dudley, a friend of and sitter to Gainsborough, wrote of the ‘ease’ and ‘nervous force’ of his correspondence: ‘a selection of his letters would offer to the world as much originality and beauty as is ever to be traced in h

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