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Cock and balls

December 27, 2020

Mr & Mrs Andrews, and Thomas Gainsborough’s sexual innuendo

Although they had commissioned it, the Andrews’s disliked this painting so much that they never let Gainsborough finish it, and hid it away for nearly 200 years. Now in the National Gallery, it is recognised as the unquestioned masterpiece of Thomas Gainsborough’s early years.  

Part of its fame comes from its mention in “Civilisation”, Kenneth Clark’s book and BBC series, and later in “Ways of Seeing”, John Berger’s critique of Clark (click here). Clark, and the general public, loved the romantic landscape. Berger argued that the painting was an arrogant statement of wealth and privilege. Both were correct.

Thomas Gainsborough was living hand to mouth when he painted it – his father, John Gainsborough, had gone bankrupt – and he found it hard to remain deferential. This couple from his home of Sudbury – Thomas had been to school with Robert Andrews – were inheritors of “new money”. The marriage linked the fortunes of Mr Andrews’ father, also Robert, with that of his neighbour William Carter. Carter and the older Mr Andrews owned equal shares in Auberies, the estate pictured in the painting. Frances, the future Mrs Andrews, was Carter’s daughter, and her mother, Carter’s wife, the daughter of John Gainsborough’s principle creditor. Thomas was commissioned to celebrate the marriage and inheritance. 

Gainsborough considered himself primarily a landscape painter, and although the composition, with the figures off-centre, revealing so much landscape, was unusual for this sort of dynastic art – one reason it is so popular today – it is unlikely that this caused the ruction. Robert was surely happy to show off his modern farming techniques. Gainsborough also catches Frances’ disdainful expression, perhaps the lowly painter was rather over familiar, but there was a bigger reason for the falling out. Look closely at Robert’s waist1

At Robert’s belt, a bag for his shot and powder hangs – the shot in the left section, the powder in the tube with the knot in it on the right. This is what Robert’s muzzle loading flintlock needs to fire. Now whatever does the bag look like? Yes, its shape unmistakeably echoes male genitalia, while its form and proximity to the gun demonstrates explosive purpose. It is placed decidedly beside the crotch, so we may be being led to understand that Robert is remarkably well hung. However, on the left, above the tower of what is possibly Long Melford Church, dark clouds are gathering, and in the enclosure below, more or less where a swimming pool is now, and set on the same horizontal line as Robert’s significant powder-and-shot bag, are a pair of trapped donkeys. Did Gainsborough see his patrons as trapped donkeys?

Or the unfinished space on Frances’s lap. Was it intended to add a baby, a pet dog, or what?

The empty space is more or less egg shaped […] in her right hand an apparently meaningless furry or feathery extension, nearly as long as her lower arm, emerges from the partially expressed object on her lap. The drily painted beginnings of a small oval, merely a swish or two of the brush, runs over thin grey under-drawing which extends down to a dangling knob-shape. It is unquestionably there, in plain sight. This is not a pet cat, or a lap-dog, or a baby, but a dead cock pheasant – or it was going to be. Had Gainsborough completed it, the pheasant’s head and neck would rhyme exactly, and rather too clearly, with the limp game bag at Robert’s waist and the flabby glove in his hand. As it is, as Gainsborough has left it, Frances Andrews has a drawing of a penis on her skirt.

We can only guess what Frances said when she saw the painting. But we know the result. 

Jim Thornton

  1. None of this was worked out by me. Most of the facts, and both quotations, are from Gainsborough, a Portrait by James Hamilton. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2017.
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