Later this week I’m launching A Right Royal Face-Off, my comic novel about Thomas Gainsborough, at Gainsborough’s House.
That’s the painter’s childhood home in Sudbury, Suffolk. It is now a gallery dedicated to his work and is currently undergoing an £8 million expansion to transform it into a national centre for the study and display of Gainsborough’s paintings and drawings.
The 18th-century parts of my novel are actually set in another of Gainsborough’s houses: the London town house in Pall Mall where he made his home from 1774 until his death in 1788.
It was the right-hand portion of a mansion called Schomberg House, which had been the residence of the third Duke of Schomberg, a Dutch general in the service of William III. He had built it on the site of the former home of Nell Gwynn, given to her by Charles II.
It was now owned by an artist called John Astley, who had come into a large fortune through marriage and bought the building for £5,000 in 1765. He spent a similar sum dividing it up, making his own home in the middle section (now number 81), with a harem on the upper floor.
Gainsborough moved with his wife and two daughters into the westernmost section (now number 80). It’s the part behind the black van in my picture: three windows wide and five storeys. He rented it for £150 a year.
Then, as now, it was in the heart of Royal London. It was very close to St James’s Palace, the official headquarters of the monarchy, and to Buckingham House (as the palace was then known), which was George III’s residence when he was not at Windsor or Kew. (He rotated his large family continually between the three houses, to the immense frustration of Queen Charlotte.)
The house even shared a garden wall with Carlton House, which had been the residence of the King’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales, until her death in 1772. During Gainsborough’s time, it would become the court of the rakish new Prince of Wales, the future George IV.
Gainsborough had the place remodelled before he moved in, making a large painting studio at the back of the house. Here he entertained his glamorous and wealthy sitters, such as the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland (left), who appear in the opening scene of my novel.
He also brought livestock into his chaotic household: in A Right Royal Face-Off, I dramatise the farcical scenes as he tries to paint three piglets drinking from a dish of milk, without his wife finding out he has brought them into the family home.
And this was the house he opened to the public in order to show his own work after he had his final breach with the Royal Academy in 1784.
It was already a popular part of town. Astley moved out of Schomberg House in 1781, and the Gainsboroughs’ new neighbour was ‘Dr’ James Graham, a renowned sexologist. Under aristocratic patronage, he had already established a Temple of Health and Hymen (above), where he gave marriage guidance lectures, treated patients with musical therapy and electric shocks, and provided a ‘celestial bed’, designed as the best possible place for couples to conceive. He now moved this establishment into Schomberg House, where it opened in a blaze of publicity and attracted large daily crowds.
Another neighbour was Gainsborough’s close friend James Christie, whose auction rooms were next door. It was Christie who sold a vast amount of Gainsborough’s paintings after his death. The firm he founded, the world’s oldest fine-art auctioneer, is still based just around the corner in King Street.
Today, Gainsborough’s old home is occupied by an investment firm called Permira, and you have to be a lot richer than I am to get through the door. But it remains possible to admire Gainsborough’s Other House from the outside. It’s no mean gaff.
A Right Royal Face-Off is out now from Lightning Books, price £8.99. To order a copy at 25% off (free UK p&p) follow this link and use the discount code BOTM.