Elizabeth and Thomas Linley

Elizabeth and Thomas Linley belonged to a family of accomplished musicians from Bath, in England—she was a celebrated singer and he, a precocious violinist. Gainsborough knew the Linleys well and his affection for the brother and sister is evident in this engaging, sympathetic portrait. The sitters' eyes shine and their finely painted features contrast with the loose brushwork of their hair, clothing, and rustic surroundings.

Although Thomas Gainsborough painted many landscapes, he spent most of his career as a portraitist. Praised for his ability to capture likenesses precisely and elegantly, Gainsborough was popular with fashionable ladies and gentlemen. He moved from Ipswich to Bath in 1759 and in a short time earned commissions from some of the city’s most distinguished residents. Gainsborough surrounded himself with famous members of the music community in Bath and was a talented musician in his own right. He became friendly with Thomas Linley the Elder, a harpsichordist, singer, and composer. Gainsborough painted many portraits of the Linley family, including this one of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth (1754—1792), and her brother Thomas (1756—1778).

Their careers were assiduously promoted by their father, who as a teacher and performer recognized the extraordinary musical gifts of his children. Elizabeth began performing publicly in 1767 and won great praise for her beautiful singing voice and appearance. Thomas, who was taught to sing and play the piano and the violin, also demonstrated great talent.

In 1770, at the age of sixteen, Elizabeth became engaged to be married. The engagement was broken, however, and she fled to France with a friend of the family, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The trip may have been an elopement, as the couple probably were married in France. Elizabeth’s father forced them to return to England, where marriage between minors was considered invalid. Although both families were initially opposed to the union, the young lovers were legally wed in England in 1773. Sheridan, a playwright and politician, decided that it was improper for his wife to perform in public and limited her to intimate concerts in their home for members of the British upper class. Their marriage was not particularly happy. He had a series of widely known love affairs, and she eventually turned to Lord Edward Fitzgerald, by whom she had an illegitimate child. The dramatic events of Elizabeth’s life were common knowledge and served as the source of contemporary plays, novels, and biographies.

The same year that he sat for this portrait, young Thomas Linley traveled to Italy to study with the renowned violinist Pietro Nardini. While there, Linley was befriended by the famous child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (both were fourteen years old at the time). In 1771 Linley returned to England, where he continued to play the violin and write sonatas. His life was tragically cut short when he drowned at the age of twenty-two.

Although Gainsborough often used outdoor scenes as backgrounds for his portraits, the sitters usually wore formal attire. In marked contrast are the rustic costumes of the young people in this double portrait. The informal clothes and the grotto in the background anticipate Gainsborough’s “fancy pictures.” These images of peasants in pastoral surroundings were painted mainly in the 1780s.

— Patricia R. Ivinski, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 36.

Thomas Gainsborough

English, 1727–1788

Elizabeth and Thomas Linley

c. 1768

Oil on canvas

27 1/2 x 24 1/2 in. (69.8 x 62.3 cm) Frame: 37 1/2 x 34 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. (95.3 x 87.9 x 9.5 cm)

Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1943