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Sudbury, Suffolk

We now turn to the upper Stour, a small river that has carved out a beautiful valley that pretty accurately delineates Norfolk from Essex. Suth-burgh to the Anglians was the enforced city in the south. The Normans established in 1086 in the Domesday Book that it was inhabited by 63 burghers, inhabitants of a burgh or borough, later called freemen. Richard de Clare granted the freemen of Sudbury their first privilege by donating land situated on the banks of the river.

In the middle ages the town owed much to the wool trade, which made it very prosperous. It was also the home to a number of priories, such St. Bartholomew’s (about 1130: the Benedictine priory of St Bartholomew was a cell of Westminster Abbey founded in the reign of Henry I by Wulfric the moneyer), Sudbury Priory built in 1272 by Baldwin de Shimperling (this priory was supplied with water through lead tubes as early as 1381!), and the Dominican Priory, but these have all been lost.

It is said that in 1791 a jury could not agree on a prisoner's guilt or innocence. The jury was therefore imprisoned without fire and candle in a cell on the first floor of the Old Moot Hall. They agreed that is was quite cold. They therefore knit their shawls to a long rope and excaped through the window. When the mayor learnt of their escape the following day he was so embarrassed that he kept quiet about the jury's escape en decided to release the prisoner.

Sudbury, Suffolk, situated on the river Stour, seen from the river.
Sudbury, Suffolk, situated on the river Stour, seen from the river.

Nowadays Sudbury is known in particular as the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough, who is regarded as one of the most outstanding painters of portraits England has produced. His birthplace was bought by a group of people in 1950, restored and transformed into a museum. The building was originally two cottages which were joined together in about 1520. A brick facade was added in the 1720s by Thomas' father. Thomas' brithdate is uncertain, he was baptised on May 14, 1727. His father was a schoolteacher involved with the wool trade.

Thomas Gainsborough wanted to make a living from painting only. He preferred painting landscapes, but in the eighteenth century this paid much less than painting portraits. In 1740 he went to Londen, where he became the apprentice of the French engraver Hubert Gravelot. He earned some money restoring, small paintings of landscapes, modelling clay; he combined this with his weakness for alcohol and women.

His marriage, which took place on July 15, 1746, in a small chapel were eloped couples were married. It predictably caused a scandal, because his bride Margaret Burr proudly admitted being the illegitimate child of a duke, due to which she received a £ 200 annuity; many years later it became clear that her father was the Duke of Beaufort. It provided Gainsborough with a solid finacial base. His landscapes did not sell well, and in 1748 the couple returned to Sudbury but could not make a living from painting alone; he therefore took a loan of £ 400 with his wife's income as a security. In 1752 he moved to Ipswich, a large city with 11.000 inhabitants, including rich merchants. He indeed was given greater commission so that he could now charge £ 5,25 for painting a head, and £ 15,75 for a halflength portrait of a man. Yet he still had to borrow money. In 1758 the financial situation improved, maar on October 20, 1759, according to the Ipswich Journal:

“To be sold, the 22nd & 23d inst. ALL the HOUSEHOLD GOODS of Mr THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH with some PICTURES and original DRAWINGS in the Landskip way. The house to be let immediately”.

The family moved to Bath in 1759; Gainsborough reputation grew from now on, and he became an established painter. In 1768 he became a founding member of the Society of Arts of Great Britain instigated by king George III, later known as the Royal Academy. A conflict arose with the Royal Academy because he was told how to hang the painting that he had made of George III and queen Charlotte, and kept the Academy at arms length. Although he expected to become the royal painter when this position became vacant when Allan Ramsay died, the king felt obliged to appoint Joshua Reynolds, the thenpresident of the Royal Society. However, he remained a favourite painter among royalty. When hedied of cancer of the throat on August 3, 1788, he was a famous painter.

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Thomas Gainsborough

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