Gainsborough’s House is the birthplace of the leading English painter Thomas Gainsborough. It is now a museum and gallery, located at 46 Gainsborough Street in Sudbury, Suffolk, England. Some of the pictures on display have been acquired with the help of the Art Fund.
The house is now 46 Gainsborough Street and dates back to around 1520. Thomas Gainsborough’s parents, John and Mary Gainsborough, probably moved here in 1722 and the artist Thomas Gainsborough was born five years later. Thomas Gainsborough, the youngest of John and Mary’s nine children, lived in the house and attended Sudbury Grammar School. At 13 he went to London to further his studies training with the French painter and illustrator, Hubert-Francois Gravelot.
The house remained as a private residence until 1920, after which time it had various functions including a guest house and antique shop. In 1958, Gainsborough’s House Society was formed to purchase the house and establish it as a museum and monument to Thomas Gainsborough. The museum opened to the public in 1961.
The oldest visible part of the house is the oak doorway into the entrance room, which could date back to 1490.
Four distinct periods may be discerned in its architecture. The original house, represented today only by the Entrance Hall and Aubrey Herbert Room, probably dates back to around 1500. The oak doorway, was probably the original front door to the house, leading straight into the Entrance Hall from the street. Houses of the late 15th century show a type of structure closely related to the timbering visible in the Entrance Hall. The fireplace with its heavy oak lintel may have been a later addition to the room, being a common feature of early 17th century rooms.
Around 1600, a house was built next door. The Parlour, across the corridor from the Entrance Hall, is the only visible part of this house, to have survived, and even there the character of the room has been greatly altered by subsequent modernisations.
The basic structure of most houses of this period was made up of a skeleton of oak beams. The panels between those beams were filled with “plaster”. In this particular case, the plaster was applied on to hazel sticks wedged between the timbers. It was composed of clay soil mixed with about half its bulk of reeds, both leaf and stem of which were used, and which were very plentiful in East Anglia. Such plaster was known as wattle and daub, raddle and daub, or pug, and was applied simultaneously by two men one on either side of the wall. This was allowed to dry hard before whitewashing, and was very tough, having the added advantage of being cheap. It was not, however, an entirely satisfactory building material, as it tended to shrink away from the beams in dry weather, and soaked up the moisture in wet weather. The interior walls would have been wainscoted with oak panelling usually “chair-high”, the rest being stuccoed and covered either with wallpaper, or painted decoration.
The structural beams would not, by the early 18th century, have been visible inside the house. The floors, which in the 16th century would have consisted of packed earth and ox-blood covered with herbed straw, would by this time, have been boarded with oak planks. In the absence of proper stains and polishes, 18th century housewives had to improvise; John Wood, when commenting upon the effected of his improvements in Bath recalls that:
“About the year 1727, the Boards of the Dining Room and other floors were made of a Brown Colour, with soot and small Beer, to hide the Dirt, as well as their own imperfections‚ the Chimney Pieces, Hearths and Slabbs were all of Free Stone and they were daily cleaned with a particular White-wash, which soon rendered the brown Floors like the Starry Firmament.”
Gainsborough’s parents bought the house for £230 in 1722 and it remained in the family until 1792. When the house was sold at auction, it was described as:
“consisting of a most excellent Brickt Mansion… replete with every convenient Accommodation for a genteel Family, or principal Manufacturer, having upon the Premises two Buildings… 147 Feet long, with an Orchard, well planted with Fruit Trees in a high state of Perfection, which with a Flower Garden, paved Yard, and Scite of the Buildings, contain about two acres.”
It continued as a private residence until the 1920s when it was converted into a guest house and tearooms. Lunches and teas were served and they also catered for wedding receptions. The garden was frequently open in the summer, both for teas and the hire of the two tennis courts. Photographs and reminiscences from this time indicate that the house adapted well for this purpose and was popular with both guests and locals alike.
After the Second World War, the house had various functions including a period as an antique shop. In the mid 1950s, Mr Doward, an English art dealer working in America who had rediscovered a Gainsborough painting, bought the house intending to live in it. However, he failed to convince his wife to move to Sudbury. Therefore, in 1956 the house was once again put up for sale.