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Thomas Bardwell 1704-1767
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Thomas Bardwell 1704-1767

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Two sisters sitting on a wooded bank with a view of a country house beyond

Oil painting on canvas 30 x 25 inches, and contained in a carved and giltwood frame

Provenance: …..........Private Collection USA until acquired by us

Comparative Literature: cf. Walpole Soc. XLVI (l978) M.Kirby Talley: “Thomas Bardwell of Bungay, artist and author”.

Painted circa 1740

Thomas Bardwell was born in East Anglia in 1704 and died in Norwich 9th Sept. 1767. Bardwell became very popular amongst the owners of substantial houses and estates of Norfolk and Suffolk where he painted portraits, views of country houses and a few conversation pieces dated 1736-40. Later in his career he did a tour through Yorkshire to Scotland where he painted portraits in some of the large houses en route.

Our painting is of exceptional interest as an early open-air conversation piece, a genre which had only just begin to be established by such painters as William Hogarth and Gawen Hamilton from the early1730's. These "conversations" represent a peculiarly English contribution to the arts, which have few counterparts on the continent. The rising prosperity of the urban middle class during the years after the South Sea Bubble had lead to a rise in demand for a more intimate and modest style of portraiture appropriate to the social status of a new class of patrons of artists, and they often depict their subjects in their houses. The paintings thus produced are exceptional visual evidence of their lifestyle and rising prosperity, their pride in their economic achievements and their self-confidence within their prosperous bourgeois surroundings.

Alongside these urban interiors are the relaxed rural conversation pieces of the Tory Squirearchy produced in the years after about 1740 by the likes of Arthur Devis, Francis Hayman, and Edward Haytley. Bardwell seems to have been well aware of these latest developments of composition and style both locally and in the metropolis. The present painting shows analogies with the pioneering rural family groups by the young Thomas Gainsborough in Ipswich, painted from about 1745/6 onwards – such pictures as Mr and Mrs Carter of 1747/8, and the Unknown young Lady at Yale (see below). It is very tempting to surmise that the young Gainsborough developed his hallmark diagonal composition, with the sitters reposing on a bank, from the work of his fellow Suffolk painter, Bardwell, who is a generation older than Gainsborough. There seems to be little doubt that the present painting dates from slightly earlier than the first essays in this style of Gainsborough, since the dresses worn by the sitters date from the period of the late 1730's and early 1740's, before the fashion for extremely exaggerated wide skirts which are a consistent feature of Gainsborough's early Conversations of the later 1740's.

The dress of the two sitters in the present painting is very similar, both in construction and in colour, to the central and right-hand figures in the “Brewster Family” which is signed and dated 1736. At the latter date, the painting would have been at the forefront of developments in composition, and shows that Bardwell was aware of current developments in group portraiture in London. As such, he is a pioneer in this sort of painting not only in his native East Anglia, but also in the country at large. This innovatory approach to informal portraiture is developed in the present painting, which may be dated to about 1740 – the date of the earliest such essays by Arthur Devis, who became the default painter of such pictures in England.

Curiously, Bardwell seems to have been equally at home with the Whig Grandees of the County, and his more Stately large portraits are to be found in many old Norfolk collections. They are competently painted, but are far from innovatory 




Thomas Bardwell: The Brewster Family 1736 (Geffrye Museum, formerly with Lane Fine Art) Oil painting on canvas 40 x 50 inches, signed and dated 1736. A very early example of the informal interior conversation piece in provincial England, it was amongst the first to depict a middle-class family at home. It was painted in Bungay, and from internal evidence can be shown to have been painted in the first-floor drawing room of the family house.



Thomas Gainsborough Young lady sitting on a bank in a landscape with a classical statue.(Mellon Collection, Yale) The analogies with the present composition are self-evident, though the costume fashion is a few years later than the present picture.


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