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Gainsborough: Hidden symbols and scandalous nature

10th October 2017

The famous ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ painting by the English artist Thomas Gainsborough is a work of art that celebrates marriage and features a stylish young couple and a dog, with an unfinished area for a future child to be painted in, according to the National Gallery. 

However, art historian James Hamilton is disputing this and claims that the description should be updated to account for his new theory.

Mr Hamilton is arguing that Gainsborough was in fact hiding a series of subtle rude symbols while “hell-bent” on revenge. He believes that the National Gallery should immediately reappraise the painting, admitting the true nature of the work that is so scandalous the gallery would need to be careful with the wording of the description. 

The painting does not celebrate the union of the two families, but instead makes a mockery of a real-life Mr and Mrs Andrews that Gainsborough had fallen out with, claims Mr Hamilton - author of a new biography on the artist. 

He argues that there are certain signs within the image that point towards the painter’s “revenge”. These include two donkeys trapped in a pen in the far background of the painting, a “phallic” bag tied to Mr Andrews' hip (along with a floppy leather glove) and an ambiguous doodle on Mrs Andrews’ lap.

Mr Hamilton, author, curator and lecturer, commented: “Something went very wrong. By now, Gainsborough had every reason to hate the Carters. Gainsborough’s father, John, not a very canny businessman, overreached himself. 

“It may be that they forced him towards bankruptcy, with the painting being a way to settle the debt. Gainsborough seems to have thought that he might have some sport with the Andrews."

The masterpiece was completed by Gainsborough in Suffolk in 1748 and features Robert Andrews and Frances Carter, who were part of a carefully-arranged marriage to unite two large estates in Sudbury, reports the Telegraph. 

Gainsborough was well-known to both families and was once good friends with Mr Andrews. Despite this, Mr Hamilton believes the painting went missing at one point and was never named, mentioned in biographies or exhibited until centuries later.

When we look closer at the details of the painting, you can make out a phallic drawing that matches a doodle found in the margin of one of Gainsborough’s letters, claims Mr Hamilton.

"Sexual innuendo and graffiti were not foreign to him,” he said. “A painting with such a high finish and express detail as Mr and Mrs Andrews would not have been left in that state [partly unfinished] and delivered without a clear understanding, serious discussion or a fundamental falling out.”

The painting was bought by London’s National Gallery in the 1960s and is currently described as the “masterpiece of Gainsborough’s early years”. Whether the gallery decides to change this description remains to be seen. 

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