Mimesis and Musical Abstraction
It is well-known that Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) was a passionate musician, but the degree to which ideas about music influenced his artistic practice has not often been clearly understood. Commenting on the excellence of Gainsborough’s drawing, his close friend, the organist and composer William Jackson of Exeter, stressed Gainsborough’s ‘facility’:
Perhaps the quickest effects ever produced, were in some of his drawings – and this leads me to take up again his facility of execution. Many of his pictures have no other merit than this facility; and yet, having it, are undoubtedly valuable. His drawings almost rest on this quality alone for their value; but possessing it in an eminent degree (and as no drawing can have any merit where it is wanting) his works, therefore, in this branch of the art, approach nearer to perfection than his paintings. (The Four Ages, 1798, pp. 157–9.)
Jackson’s enthusiasm is sparked not by Gainsborough’s capacity simply to represent natural forms, but by the brilliance of his performances with pencil and paper. And this is the key to understanding Gainsborough’s graphic art. In the drawing illustrated here, for example, representing the landscape is not Gainsborough’s only or (we might even say) his primary concern. The landscape provides him with an opportunity to create a pleasing ensemble of abstract forms – arabesques, scallops, patterns of light and shade. In addition, he is interested in the physical properties of the materials with which he is working – the quality of the graphite and the surface texture of the paper. To understand the way he balances these factors – mimesis, abstraction and materiality – it’s necessary to examine the intellectual and aesthetic milieu in which Gainsborough was working in order to discover contexts for what he was doing. In Gainsborough’s case, the aesthetic principles that underpin his artistic practice are closely comparable with ideas about the nature of musical structure and expression that were current around the time in which he lived and worked. Eighteenth-century music theory adds a fascinating dimension to the appreciation of Gainsborough’s art.
The following extract is adapted from Gainsborough’s Vision (1999), Chapter 5, in which links between art and music are traced in detail.
What is noticeable about the tonal stresses in the Landscape with Wooded Path (illustrated) is the deep-seated awareness of the act of performance or execution evinced in Gainsborough’s use of the pencil. The paper, for example, is not treated as a transparent medium; rather, the material qualities of its surface are used to contribute to the range of visual effects. Note where, for instance, in the far bank to the left of the path, pressure is taken off the pencil, allowing the chain lines or wire marks in the paper, along with the maker’s crest and initials (‘LVG’), to break the flow of graphite. The texture of the paper helps to propel the eye in ways that both complement and counterpoint the directions taken by the dominant hatching. As this suggests, the effects of the pencilwork serve a function that is independent of any mimetic intention that they also have. Individual lines and marks achieve a presence that is separate from their descriptive function and can appear as pure flourishes.
Aside from the effects of hatched lines – for example on the extreme left of the picture, the curly lines of the foliage, and the sharp zigzag lines to the right of centre in the immediate foreground – one may isolate the leftmost of the series of trees at the back of the picture. There, jutting out to the left of the curlicue that registers the tree trunk, is a mere squiggle, a z-shaped flourish that lies so emphatically parallel to the surface of the paper that it insistently draws attention to its intrinsic physical presence. Hardly readable as branch or foliage, it remains a line made by a pencil on paper. In such moments, where the flourish is pushed to the point at which it might jar with mimetic expectations, the formal texture is not ruptured. On the contrary, such lines enact a harmony of tone and shape with other elements in the composition that maintains the sense of a coherent whole because the drawing contains abstract patterns, unconstrained by naturalism, that have more to do with the relationship between artificial forms than with the ability of the pencil to record a moment experienced in nature.