I chose to make the comparison between Gainsborough’s “Mr & Mrs Andrews” and Shonebare’s “Mr & Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads” because although the titles are similar and the concept is similar, there are distinct differences. The fundamental differences stem from the fact that Shonebare used mannequins, whereas Gainsborough painted in oil on canvas. Shonebare has excluded the landscape whereas Gainsborough has included his beloved landscape which is an important part of his paintings. These two artists are from two different backgrounds, different races and 235 years apart. The two pieces are an ocean apart: Gainsborough’s painting is hung in The National Gallery, London while Shonebare’s work is installed in The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
The important differences in the two pieces are Gainsborough has a landscape in the background, whereas Shonebare has excluded this which alters the subject completely. For Gainsborough, the landscape was extremely important and by combining portraiture with landscape, this helped him to cover his love of landscape and at the same time earned a living, but it also gave us an historical insight into the landscapes in that period. Gainsborough’s sitters almost appear secondary, with the Andrews sitting under the oak tree and just about appearing in the portrait. The fact that Shonebare excludes the landscape is significant as the landscape depicts the wealth and status of Mr Andrews and by excluding this, Shonebare has appropriated a degree of this power and wealth. Gainsborough cursed the face business but Shonebare’s pieces without heads would not have worked in Gainsborough’s time for the simple fact that portraiture was popular in the mid 18th century. Portraitures were a way of indicating to the world that a person had arrived. The face/eyes are the one thing that helps to give a human being identity – it is like the window of a person’s character and soul and by excluding this, there is an emptiness in Shonebare’s story, although one could argue that by being faceless the viewers can decide on the characters for themselves. Another significant factor in Shonebare’s Mr & Mrs Andrew is by not having any heads, the eyes are drawn immediately to the beautiful vibrant fabrics. The Dutch Wax fabrics are important signifiers of Africa in Shonebare’s installation and although this is associated with Africa, it is in fact printed fabric based on Indonesians batik, manufactured in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries and exported to West Africa. This cloth has proved to be a rich and adaptable material, both literally and metaphorically, and it is vibrant and theatrical, although this particular installation is incongruous as the material does not marry up with the period designs of the mid 18th century as it would have been highly unlikely gentlemen and ladies would have dressed in clothing from the sub-Continent, even though some of these materials are extremely expensive. Include in here Shonebare’s technique(why did he use material?)/Gainsborough’s brushstrokes (how has he managed to achieve such reality in his fabric? There is also something quite unsavoury about decapitated heads with the bodies still looking alive and I find the Shonebare’s mannequins quite surreal and disturbing having looked at this several times. Why however did Shonebare use headless characters? One of the reasons I expect could well be he wanted the characters to be mysterious but it is more likely that because Gainsborough’s painting is a celebration of deference and by being headless, Shonebare has somehow deflated their status. The eyes of Gainsborough’s “Mr & Mrs Andrews” are staring straight at viewers, inviting them into their world. Expand here. In comparison to her neck, however, Gainsborough’s Mrs Andrews has extremely narrow shoulders which seems out of proportion to the rest of her body, and I wonder if this was naturally so or if it was to underscore that she was the subordinate of the two. Mrs Andrews’ faint smile indicates decorum although her narrow shoulders and posture reveals a degree of subjugation and possibly domination by her confident, no-nonsense husband. Shonebare’s Mrs Andrews’ posture has revealed a more confident looking woman with the shoulders being broader and the fact that the couple looks more equal has automatically transformed Shonebare’s mannequins into the 21st century. Gainsborough’s painting on the other hand is an anachronism of the past with the man standing next to his belongings: his wife, dog and gun and his land ownership in the background. Expand on Gainsborough here. Although Shonebare’s installation is inside a building and there is just a plain background, he has managed to conjure up a feeling of a couple being outside of a building and the Rococo style bench could well have assisted in making this possible. When I look at Shonebare’s piece, I am thinking landed gentry but on looking again, my eyes tells me that there is incongruity as these bright colours would be classified as far too garish for these upwardly mobile folks in the middle of the English countryside. It shows Mrs Andrews in fine silk clothing, sitting on a Rococo style bench, sitting primly, while Mr Andrews is portrayed as a casually dressed gentleman with a dog and a gun, standing proudly before his sprawling land. Expand on both Mr Andrews – clothes, figure and posture.
I saw “Mr & Mrs Andrews” at the National Gallery in late November 2009 and it is a relatively small oil on canvas, measuring 69.8 x 119.4 cms. It lacked that stiffness and grandeur associated with huge canvasses of that period. The young couple are shown in their Suffolk surroundings and it shows a distinctive style of portraiture, which does convey a degree of spontaneity and casualness, although that is not strictly true as the painting is highly organised. Robert Andrews would have been eager to display his latest agricultural advancement with the mechanical seed drill which was unusual in the mid-18 th century. Expand on Gainsborough’s landscape.
Why did Shonebare not have a landscape/background? Why did he chose to have a 3-d installation? Could he have achieved a realistic landscape of that size in post-Modern Britain?
Both artists are from completely different backgrounds and eras and to understand these pieces a little better, it is important to look in further details at their lives.
Yinka Shonebare MBE was born 234 years later, in London in 1962 to Nigerian parents and lived in Battersea until his parents relocated to Lagos when he was 3. His father, a lawyer, wanted him to also study law but at 17 Shonebare returned to London and at 19 he chose to study art. He received his BA from Byam Shaw (now part of Central St Martins College of Art & Design) and his MA from Goldsmith College, London University. A month into his art course he became seriously ill with a rare viral infection which attacked his spine and left him temporarily paralysed. He is now partially paralysed and walks using a stick. While at art school Shonebare was questioned by a lecturer about his choice of subject matter and why was it not more African?
This started his journey of using Dutch Wax fabric as an apt metaphor for the entangled relationship between Africa and Europe in his installations. It has proved to be a rich and adaptable material, with the flexibility to be used in his installations, his paintings and in other projects he has undertaken. Shonebare works across the media of painting, sculpture, photography and filmmaking and has won several prizes, shortlisted for the Turner prize in 2004 and has been awarded the commission to make a work for the Trafalgar Square Fourth plinth in 2010. In 2005 he was awarded the MBE – an award he has chosen to use as part of his artistic identity and uses this wherever his name is written.
Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, in 1727, fifth son of a cloth merchant. Having a keen interest in drawing as a child, at the tender age of 13, he was sent to London to study art in 1740. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy, but unlike his contemporary, Joshua Reynolds, he was never knighted. Gainsborough’s natural preference was always for landscape painting, but it was impossible for an English artist to make a living painting landscapes and so in 1748 he moved back to Suffolk where be became known as a portrait painter. He hated portrait painting and, like Reynolds, this was his main form of income but he felt “it bounded him to the wishes of his sitters.” “….Nothing is worse than gentlemen – I do portraits to live and landscapes because I love them”, Gainsborough once said to a friend. In another letter to a friend he complained about the pressure of society portraiture, which he described as “the curs’d Face Business”.
Gainsborough was one of the most important English artists of his time. He was impressed by the natural rhythm of Dutch landscape paintings and became a dedicated admirer of Van Dyck. The focus of country life as a centre of power and privilege was faithfully reflected in Gainsborough’s art, and in Mr & Mrs Andrews the landscape reflected this power and self-esteem.
In this painting, his most famous, it shows Robert Andrews, Gainsborough’s childhood friend, with his wife Frances on their estate. They had been married on 10th November 1748 when he was 23 and she was 16 and it is believed that this was painted soon after their marriage. Robert Andrews inherited half of his father’s estate and the other half of the neighbouring pieces of land from his wife’s father, William Carter. In “Mr & Mrs Andrews” Gainsborough succeeded in painting both a portrait of the client and of the landscape which is natural and in fact it is possible to relocate the very tree under which the Andrews sat. Unlike the French artificial geometric gardens, he was concerned with freeing painting from any kind of stylisation although Gainsborough sometimes included his own landscape from his imagination.