Gainsborough’s Countryside (S/LIB/9/8/1)
A talk given by CFD Sperling: to an unknown audience probably in the town of Sudbury, Suffolk, early 1930s. The paper was found in the Society’s archives.
The descent of Thomas Gainsborough from a worthy Sudbury family, engaged in the Cloth trade, is well known to all, and may be found, fully set out, in the various Bibliographies of the artist which have been published. But, today, I propose to consider his early environment, and to tell you something about this part of the Stour Valley in which he was nurtured and about the surrounding villages which were not without their influence upon him.
The country around Sudbury is eminently calculated to stimulate a love for landscape. The scenery of the Stour Valley could never fail to charm a mind formed by nature to feed on the beautiful. Thomas Gainsborough, indeed, never quitted England, but spent his infancy, and matured his artistic education, in this country, teeming with homely rural associations, and, amidst such unambitious scenery, he found congenial food for his mind and subjects for his pencil.
The river Stour was ever dear to him and fifty years residence in other parts of the country could not alienate his affections from the river of his boyhood.
This southern part of the county of Suffolk is today a district of rich in cornfields, winding lanes, and beautiful churches. It is difficult to believe that these country villages were once the centre of a thriving cloth-making industry. Four hundred years ago there was scarcely a village that had not something to do with the making of broad-cloth.
In the 11th and 12th centuries little woollen-cloth was woven in England for trade purposes, though no doubt in many a home, sufficient cloth was woven for the use of the household. To supply the demand for the finished material, English Wool was exported in the raw state to Flanders, where it was worked up into cloth and sent back to be worn in this country.
By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the cloth weaving industry grew until England became a great cloth-making country exporting cloth all over the world, and the time came when the clothiers were amongst the wealthiest men of the land, owning manors and houses, and gaining knighthoods and other high distinctions.
The manufacture of Woollen Cloth had its chief centre in the eastern counties, though it was more or less diffused through the length and breadth of the country.
As early as the beginning of the fourteenth century, it is recorded in the Ipswich Domesday Book, that a duty was there payable on export of the woollen cloth of “Coggeshall, Maldon, Colchester and Sudbury” from the port of Ipswich.
The weaving industry, in this corner of Suffolk, was of native growth and not affected to any great extent by immigration of Flemish weavers. There was indeed a rapid increase of the alien population in the 15th century, but the greater number were settled on the coast, and were occupied chiefly as brewers, coopers and shoemakers. In 1486 only five Flemings were entered in the Return as settled in the cloth-making district.
In the fifteenth century the development of this trade was the one bright feature in the economic history of the time.
Commercially and industrially the eastern countries were then in the vau: their ports gave access to the highway of commerce with the Dutch and the Low Countries, and it was indirectly due to this that they became the most thriving centres of the weaving and textile manufactures.
The flourishing state of the trade and the liberating of the wealthy clothiers led to the reconstruction on a larger scale of the greater number of the Parish Churches of this neighbourhood. Again and again brasses or ledger-slabs bear the wool merchant’s mark, and Chantry-chapels or Church-extensions sprang from their benefactors.
Country towns vied with one another in enlarging and beautifying their shrines of worship, and it is interesting to see how each endeavoured to outdo its neighbour’s lead. Sudbury was not minded to lag behind in its provision for worship, of which there is evidence in the three fine Churches standing in the town, each of them rebuilt or added to at the end of the fifteenth century.
Sudbury is the centre of this once flourishing manufacturing district: a district which included Lavenham, Lindsey, Kersey, Boxford and Hadleigh, on the Suffolk side, and Dedham, Colchester, Coggeshall, Braintree, Bocking, and Halstead, on the Essex side.
This district is throughout famous for its large Perpendicular Churches: the magnificent Church at Lavenham, six miles to the North of Sudbury, was practically rebuilt at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries by the wealthy Spring family, cloth manufacturers of that place. The carved oak screen of the Spring Chapel in Lavenham Church is one of the gems of Suffolk art.
The fine Church of Long Melford, three miles away, was there rebuilt by the generosity of the Clopton and Martin families, and the contemporary stained glass, much of which still remains, is noteworthy. Stoke Church, with its lofty tower and fine brasses, and Nayland, with its painting of Constable, were reconstructed or enlarged at this period.
In this district, too, are the towns of Bildeaton and Hadleigh, which took their share in the production of woollen cloth; close by are the little villages of Lindsey and Kersey, famed for their association with the wool trade, which should alas be visited for their rural beauty. “Lindsey Woolsey, Carsey cloth, with Sudbury Says and Colchester Bays” were in use throughout the countryside.
Further down the river at Stratford St Mary the wealthy families of Smith, and Morse, Clothiers, have left their marks carved in stone or painted in glass, in the walls of the Church. At Dedham the Webbes and the Gurdons carried on a flourishing trade and contributed largely to the reconstruction of the Church.
Here too may be seen a late 15th century building of much interest, said to have been formerly the ‘Bay ad Say’ factory.
The beginning of the 16th century saw the Suffolk cloth trade at its height; slowly but gradually the demand for Suffolk Broad Cloth declined, and changing fashion led to the demand for “the New Draperies” made in London, Norwich and other places. In Sudbury, cloth continued to be made up to and after the time of Thomas Gainsborough. His father, John Gainsborough, we are told, introduced the manufacture of “burying crepe” into this town. A zealous government having hoped to revive the woollen trade by decreeing that woollen cloth should be the Englishmans Shroud. Arthur Young, the great agricultural writer, when travelling in the district in 1767, visited Sudbury and reported that it was a great manufacturing town wherein a great many hands earned a living “by working up the wool from the sheep’s back to weaving it into says and burying crepe, which are their principal articles. The whole manufactury works chiefly for the London markets, but some says go down the river (which is navigable from here to Manningtree) for exportation”.
It was in this neighbourhood, richly endowed with beauty, and studded throughout with the picturesque manor-houses and the humbler timber cottages of those engaged in the clothing trade, that Thomas Gainsborough was brought up, and passed the most impressionable years of his life.