This painting was formerly at Stourhead, Wiltshire, in the famous collection of Sir Henry Hoare, one of the Gainsborough’s earliest patrons.(1) It was the last purchase that Holloway made for the college in June 1883 and is the earliest in date of all the paintings in the collection. The painting has been in the Hoare family since 1773m when, on 6 July, Henry Hoare paid William Hoare RA, the Bath portrait painter (1707-1799; no relation) the sum of £84 for a “Gainsborough Picture.”(2) Gainsborough himself banked with Mssrs. Hoare in Temple Bar from 1762 to 1785.
Henry Hoare (called “The Magnificent”), together with his grandson, Richard Colt Hoare, had built up a fine collection of paintings, purchased both in England and on the Continent. It included Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines (now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York) and Mengs’s Caesar and Cleopatra (still at Stourhead).(3)
The sale of the Stourhead Heirlooms at Christie’s in 1883 was instigated by the fifth Baronet, Sir Henry Ainslie Hoare, possibly to finance his political career.(4)
The painting is first recorded as having been seen at Stourhead in 1776 by Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys, a doctor’s daughter, whose diaries and travel journals, according to their editor, ‘cannot fail to interest the general reader, containing as they do such interesting anecdotes of royalty, and other notable people, descriptions of country seats, places, towns, manufactures, amusements, and general habits of the period which now form history.’ She reported the painting as hanging in the Picture Gallery at Stourhead and described it as a ‘fine landscape by Gainsborough, of Bath.’(5)
The Reverend William Gilpin, in his account of the country houses in the West Country, first published in 1798, also commented on Peasants Going to Market.(6) He referred to it as ‘some Market peasants’ and praised both the figures and the effect as ‘pleasing’.
The Bath portrait and history painter Prince Hoare (1755-1834) wrote about this painting while commenting on the fact that Gainsborough’s early landscapes were overlooked by patrons who were reluctant to buy them.(7) He stated that Gainsborough was ‘so disgusted at the blind preference paid to his powers of portraiture, that, for many years of his residence at Bath, he regularly shut up all his landscapes in the back apartment of his house, no which no common visitors were admitted. The landscape that first found its way into any collection was purchased of him by the late Henry Hoare, Esq. of Stourhead, on a friend’s recommendation! And so little even then was the merit of Gainsborough duly estimated, the Mr. [Coplestone Warre] Bampfydle, a dilettante in Painting, being on a visit at Stourhead, offered to mend Gainsborough’s sheep, by repainting them, and was allowed to do so. They have been restored to their original deficiencies, by the taste and good sense of the present possessor [Sir Richard Colt Hoare] of that beautiful place.’ ‘Gainsborough’s sheep’ must refer to this painting of Peasants Going to Market, which was the only painting, which included sheep in the Hoare collection.
As to the content of the painting, John Hayes has pointed out that both Gainsborough’s great friend William Jackson, the composer, and also William Hazlitt had remarked on the fact that his peasant figures were basically too sophisticated for truly rustic characters(8). He quoted from Hazlitt’s Criticism in Art where he wrote that Gainsborough attributed ‘the air of an Adonis to the driver of a hay-cart, and models the features of a milkmaid on the principles of the antique’.(9) This Hayes sees as a reference to Peasants Going to Market.
The scene represents an early morning with the effects of the first light of the day being shed on a band of country people appearing over the brow of a hill on their way to market. In 1962 John Hayes wrote that he felt that Gainsborough had taken from Rubens ideas for the painting of the dawn light in his landscapes and names Rubens’s Birdcatchers in the Louvre in particular.(10) The precise date of the painting is uncertain but it is considered to have been painted in the last year of Gainsborough’s stay in Bath, that is, between 1769 and the date of payment in mid-1773.(11)
A wash drawing relating closely to the oil painting of Peasants Going to Market is in a Private Collection in America. It is strongly felt however (12) that this drawing of Open Landscape with Peasants Going to Market (also catalogued as Peasants returning from Market)(13) was executed by Gainsborough after his completion of the oil painting and not as a study for it. John Hayes has dated this drawing as belonging to the early 1780's. It represents three figures on horseback, a dog to the left of them and two donkeys in the right foreground. The sheep are omitted in the drawing but the tree on the right is common to both to works. The effects of the figures silhouetted against the sky is also similar.
A drawing in pencil and watercolour of two figures on horseback and a dog in the Leeds City Art Gallery was catalogued in 1949 as being by Gainsborough and a possible study for Peasants Going to Market.(14) However, it is no longer considered to be by him.(15)
Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury in Suffolk, the son of a cloth merchant. He was sent to London in 1740 to study under the French draughtsman and engraver, Hubert Gravelot (1699-1773); here he painted The Charterhouse (Foundling Hospital), a topographical roundel which he presented to the Foundling Hospital in 1748.
Some time before 1750 he settled in Ipswich, where he began to paint portraits, and where he remained until the autumn of 1759, when he moved to Bath. In 1761 he began to send paintings, full-length portraits and some landscapes, to London to be exhibited in the first public exhibitions held by the Society of Artists. In 1768 when the R.A. was founded by George III, Gainsborough was one of its original members. He exhibited there in the following years, at their inaugural exhibition, with the Countess of Sefton (Private Collection). Gainsborough was elected to the Council of the Academy, but, after a quarrel in 1773, he did not exhibit there for four years. Another argument in 1784 led him to hold his own private exhibitions at his home at Schomberg House, Pall Mall, until his death four years later.
Gainsborough’s Bath portrait show Van Dyck’s influence as, in much the same way, his landscapes acknowledge his debt to Rubens.
In 1774 Gainsborough left Bath to establish himself in London as a portrait painter of some reputation and three years later he received his first commission from the Royal Family: the Duke and the Duchess of Cumberland (ex. RA1777  and , Royal Collection).
Gainsborough’s greatest rival in London was Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) whose approach and style however were completely at variance with his own. Reynolds paid great tribute to Gainsborough in his Fourteenth Discourse, in which he said: If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire us the honourable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the History of the Art, among the very first of that rising name.(16)
1. See Mary Woodall, Thomas Gainsborough, His Life and Work, 1949, page 93
2. According to hare Bank Ledger
3. See the Country Life articles by St John Gore, Prince of Georgian Collectors, 30 January 1964, pages 278-80
4. See Kenneth Woodbridge, Stourhead, The National Trust Guide Book, 1975
5. Ed. Emily J. Climenson, Passages of the Diaries of Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys, 1899, page 173
6. William Gilpin, Observations on the Western Parts of England, etc., 1798, page 119
7. Prince Hoare, Epochs of the Arts including Hints on the Use and Progress of Painting and Sculpture in Great Britain, 1813, pages 76-7
8. John Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 1971, page 17
9. William Hazlitt, Criticism in Art, 1843, page 195
10. In the introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition of Gainsborough’s landscapes at the University of Nottingham
11. See Mary Woodall, Gainsborough’s Landscapes Drawings, 1949, page 49, and Ellis Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, page 114
12. John Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 1971, number 502
13. In Agnew’s exhibition catalogue of 104th Annual Exhibtion of Watercolours and Drawings, 1977, number 7
14. Mary Woodall, Gainsborough’s Landscapes Drawings, 1949, pages 45, 49-51, number 78, reproduced plate 49
15. John Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 1971, page 319
16. Ed. Robert R. Wark, Discourse XIV, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Dicourse on Art, Yale University Press, 1975, page 248
6 July 1773 Henry Hoare of Stourhead paid William Hoare, RA, £84;
By Descent; Sir Henry Hoare;
His sale Stourhead Heirlooms Christie's 2 June 1883 number 16 (under the title Peasants and Colliers going to Market)
Bought Martin, £2,835
Royal Holloway & Bedford Colleges
British Institution, Old Masters, 1814, number 44
Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1870, number 124
University of Nottingham, Landscapes by Gainsborough, 1962, number 18
Royal Academy, Bi-Centenary Exhibition, 1968-69, number143
Paris, La Peinture Romantique Anglaise et les Raphaéliques, 1972, number 124
Milan, British Paintings 1660-1840, 1975, number 51
Munich, Two Hundred Years of British Paintings 1680-1880, 1979-80, number 35
Paris, Gainsborough 1727-1788, 1981, number 45
William Gilpin, Observations on the Western Parts of England, etc., 1798, page 119
George William Fulcher, Life of Thomas Gainsborough RA, 1859, page 195
Walter Armstrong, Thomas Gainsborough and His Place in English Art, 1898, page 206
Ed. Emily J. Climenson, Passages of the Diaries of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys, 1899, page 173
William T. Whitley, Thomas Gainsborough, 1915, pages 43, 357-8
Mary Woodall, Thomas Gainsborough His Life and His Work, 1949, pages 45, 49-51, 55 and reproduced plate 50
Mary Woodall, Gainsborough's Landscapes Drawings, 1949, pages 93-4
Ellis Waterhouse, Paintings in Britain 1530-1790, 1953, page 188
Ellis Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, number 911, page 114 and reproduced plate 115
John Hayes, Gainsborough and Rubens, Apollo, Volume LXXXVIII, 1963, pages 92-3 and reproduced page 94
St John Gore, A Worthy Heir to Greatness, Country Life, 6 February 1964, page 278
John Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 1971, page 17, numbers 502, 826, details reproduced plate 301
Luke Hermann, British Landscape Painting of the Eighteenth Century, 1973, page 97
John Hayes, Gainsborough Paintings and Drawings, 1975, number 80, page 25, and reproduced plate 115
John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape, 1980, pages 53-4
Mr Kitson, The Age of Baroque, 1966, reproduced plate 68