This very rare print formed part of a series of twelve prints published by J & J Boydell. The present plate was no 3 in the series and is regarded as the second state of two. The first state which is of extreme rarity is known in three ‘proof’ impressions dating from 1780 which were printed by Gainsborough himself (Huntington Art Gallery and Library, San Marino, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven and British Museum, London). The present print, as published by Boydell, utilised Gainsborough’s original plate in conjunction with a separate plate below giving the address line and name of the artist. This particular impression is carefully and evenly printed and is possibly an earlier version of the ‘second’ state before the numbering of the published plate ‘3’ which was added to the top left corner of the image.
Gainsborough is perhaps the most technically inquisitive artist working in Britain in the eighteenth century, possibly with the exception of Stubbs who additionally mastered the art of enamelling. A significant part of Gainsborough’s practice and emotional energy was expended in drawing and he appears to have been attracted by printmaking techniques which replicated drawings. In eighteenth century France new engraving techniques such as stippling and colour printing had produced impressive results in the ‘crayon’ and ‘pastel’ manner the hands of masters such as Bonnet. Amongst these new techniques were soft-ground etching and aquatint, both methods adopted by Gainsborough in his rare prints and which permitted a more ‘painterly’ approach to printmaking. As Michael Rosenthal (M. Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough, 1999, p.258) has noted, Gainsborough was wary of the time consuming process of conventionally etching a plate and probably learned the technique of soft-ground etching from Paul Sandby who appears to have introduced this technique into England. In this process, the plate is covered in a soft wax and paper is laid onto the wax. A drawing can be made directly onto the paper which when lifted removes wax from where pressure has been applied and the plate can then be ‘bitten’ in acid. The advantage as Sandby recorded and Gainsborough took advantage of was that ‘it saves all the trouble of Etching with a Needle, and will produce an outline like fine Indian chalk’. Gainsborough was evidently fascinated enough to try both soft-ground and sugar-lift aquatint techniques in a very small series of experimental prints which, on the evidence shown in some of the very few surviving autograph proof impressions, he possibly intended to publish. That he never seems to have taken this further was perhaps predicated by his realisation that the process of making impressions to a standard that satisfied him was time consuming and ultimately could only be done by him. The time saved in making the plate by the new etching technique would be somewhat outweighed by the labour involved in taking prints from them. In any case for Gainsborough, the creative process of making drawings was ultimately more fulfilling than printing a run of etchings.
Indeed, the extent of Gainsborough’s activity as a printmaker is somewhat contentious and there is some doubt today that all of the twelve plates published by Boydell were in fact etched by Gainsborough. Three of the prints issued by Boydell were incontestably made from plates etched by Gainsborough himself on the evidence of Gainsborough’s own proof impressions printed either in grey or brown ink on carefully selected papers. These are Hayes no 9 (the present image), Hayes no. 10, Wooded landscape with peasant reading a tombstone, rustic lovers and ruined church and Hayes no. 11, Wooded landscape with nherdsman driving cattle over a bridge. The use of a separate additional plate on which the lettering was included in Boydell’s printing of this plate (second state), as is the case with the two other Boydell prints under discussion, is also indicative that this was Gainsborough’s plate adapted for publication in 1797 rather than one which might have been produced especially for Boydell’s posthumous edition in emulation of the master.
Given the great rarity even of impressions from the Boydell edition, it was evidently either printed as a very small run or met with little success. Certainly Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, appears to have again been in control of the plates by April 1802 when she wrote to Boydell’s manager to secure possession of the unsold prints. The plates were eventually acquired by the printer McQueen and their successors Thomas Ross & Son until the eleven surviving plates were acquired by the Tate in 1971 which authorised a small edition of prints taken from them.