Thomas Gainsborough is considered to have been one of the most innovative and important British printmakers of the 18th century and, although he attained both fame and fortune through his outstanding ability as a portrait painter, he viewed himself more as a landscape artist, especially during his early years. Thomas Gainsborough continued to produce accomplished landscapes of great ingenuity throughout his life but apart from the four etchings which he made during the 1850’s, he did not produce any further original prints for around fifteen to twenty years. When he did return to printmaking he experimented in a variety of media, working mostly in aquatint and soft ground etching. None of his later prints were published in his lifetime.
In about 1970 eleven Thomas Gainsborough plates were re-discovered in the hands McQueen printing family. All of these plates were then thought to have been designed and engraved/etched by Thomas Gainsborough himself and were catalogued by Hayes as such. None of these works is recorded to have been published during Gainsborough’s lifetime. The first issue of the nine plates which were published after the artist's death, was made by J. Boydell in 1797; the other two plates (Wooded Landscape with Three Cows at a Pool, Hayes 15; and Wooded Landscape with Shepherd and Sheep, Hayes 13) remained unpublished. All eleven plates were in the possession of the McQueen printing family by the middle of the nineteenth century and there is no record of the McQueen’s printing from them until 1971 when one sole edition was printed by Philip McQueen under the careful supervision of Iain Bain of the Tate Gallery. The printing was limited to 75 impressions from each plate and the plates then passed into the permanent collection of the Tate Gallery, London, where they will remain for posterity.
(N.B. Only 75 impressions were taken from each plate. The information regarding edition size given by Hugh Belsey in Gainsborough the printmaker, Peter Pears Gallery, Aldeborough, 1988, is inaccurate. This has been confirmed by Iain Bain who was in charge of the printing of the plates before they entered the Tate Gallery collection).
This printing represents the first and only publication of two of Thomas Gainsborough’s plates, including Wooded Landscape with Three Cows at a Pool, Hayes 15; and Wooded Landscape with Shepherd and Sheep, Hayes 13. Of the 75 sets printed those forty-two years ago, many have already gravitated to permanent museum or library collections. Few impressions from this edition remain available to the private collector. They represent some of the most carefully printed examples of Thomas Gainsborough’s brilliant work in relation to printmaking.
It is clear that Thomas Gainsborough’s plates were preserved with great care by the McQueen family, as their excellent condition, apparent from this printing, attests. Much of the quality of these impressions must also be accredited to the incomparable printing skills of Philip McQueen, the last active printer of a family who have been masters of plate printing for five generations. Printed on the finest geared press of the plate printers Thomas Ross & Son, the plates were inked using hand-ground Frankfort black combined with Burnt Umber in oil. The hand-made rag paper on which they are printed was made to order, with a specially dated watermark, at J. Barcham Green’s Hayle Mill in Maidstone, Kent. Each impression was inked, wiped and printed by hand in the traditional manner, with an expertise which is now all but lost. Indeed, these impressions represent an enterprise rarely seen in this age and are effectively some of the last impressions of Thomas Gainsborough’s printed works likely to be attainable at a price affordable to the average private collector.
In stark contrast with the exceptionally few posthumous impressions printed by J. Boydell which to appear for sale on rare occasions, the examples from the 1971 edition are still affordable to connoisseurs of modest means. The only recent auction price is sufficient to illustrate this point clearly – e.g. a trimmed and damaged posthumous Boydell impression of Wooded Landscape with Country Cart and Figures (H.18) was sold in February 1993 at Christie’s South Kensington for the sum of £3,960.
With the exception of his few early etchings, all of Thomas Gainsborough’s original prints were produced during the last twenty years of his life. During these years he appears to have experimented with aquatint, soft ground etching, and mezzotint, occasionally reinforced with touches of etching and drypoint. (The authorship of Gainsborough’s various printed works is currently under review by Conal Shields, curator of the Thomson Collection, and Hugh Belsey, former Curator of Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury and currently Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art charged with the task of writing the definitive catalogue of portraits by Thomas Gainsborough.)