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Sarah Kirby (née Bull); (John) Joshua Kirby

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Sarah Kirby (née Bull); (John) Joshua Kirby

by Thomas Gainsborough
oil on canvas, circa 1751-1752
30 1/4 in. x 25 1/8 in. (768 mm x 637 mm)
Purchased, 1905
Primary Collection
NPG 1421

Sittersback to top

Artistback to top

  • Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Portrait and landscape painter. Artist or producer associated with 264 portraits, Sitter in 8 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Gainsborough got to know Kirby when the two men collaborated on a painting around 1748. They became life-long friends and soon after Gainsborough painted this informal portrait of the couple and their dog. While the scene seems to be set in the English countryside - probably their native Suffolk - X-rays show that Gainsborough's original plan was grander and more French in style. The rustic landscape once included a classical sculpture which Gainsborough covered up with the tree-trunk. More detailed information on this portrait is available in a National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue, John Kerslake's Early Georgian Portraits (1977, out of print).

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 40
  • Gibson, Robin, Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 59
  • Kerslake, John, Early Georgian Portraits, 1977, p. 162
  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 68 Read entry

    Gainsborough met the Kirbys after he moved back to Suffolk in 1748, having both completed his apprenticeship and failed to make a living in London. Life in Ipswich was not much more profitable, and Gainsborough relied on local professional people for his few portrait commissions and for the even rarer sale of the evocative landscapes, rather Dutch in style, at which he was beginning to excel. Kirby was not only the author of an early illustrated book on Suffolk and of a well-known book on perspective but also ran a general painting business, with which Gainsborough probably helped him out. This portrait commission may well have cemented what was to become a lifelong friendship, to the extent that in the last weeks of his life Gainsborough gave instructions that he was to be buried next to Kirby in Kew churchyard.

    It is possible to deduce from Gainsborough’s paintings that he must have loved and owned dogs all his life. His earliest dated painting (1745) is of the magnificent white bull terrier Bumper, and although he only painted about half a dozen such ‘portraits’, including his own two little dogs Tristram and Fox (Tate Gallery), dogs constitute a significant element in many of his major portraits and ‘fancy’ pictures, especially in later works like The Morning Walk. In the early little self-portrait with his wife and daughter in the National Gallery, painted a few years before the Kirbys, the family’s small spaniel drinks from a pool. The Kirbys’ dog, here looking strangely out of scale and slightly disreputable – a spotty gun dog of some sort- seems designed to introduce a little light and shade into a difficult area of composition and may have been a later addition. Indeed X-rays reveal several changes of mind during the course of painting, including a large classical monument behind Kirby, which was later dispensed with.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 355

Events of 1751back to top

Current affairs

Frederick, Prince of Wales dies and is succeeded by his son, later George III, as Prince of Wales.
Third Gin Act requires government inspection of distilleries and restricts sales to licensed premises in an effort to curtail consumption.

Art and science

Thomas Gray publishes his poem Elegy written in a Country Church Yard.
Philosopher David Hume publishes An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.
Eliza Haywood publishes her novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless.
William Hogarth publishes his satirical engravings Beer-Street, Gin Lane and The Four Stages of Cruelty.


Robert Clive reopens hostilities with the French in India. He prevails after holding out during the siege of Arcot.
First part of the Encyclopédie - an innovative 28 volume encyclopedia which represented the dominant strains of Enlightenment thinking - is published in France, edited by Diderot.
Swedish chemist Alex Cronstedt identifies nickel as an impurity in copper ore as a separate metallic element.

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