‘A great sense of mystery and tension’: Sophie Macfadyen responds to Gainsborough’s ‘A Rocky Road with Trees’
On 28th January 2019, 11 A-Level students and members of the History of Art Club from St George’s, Ascot visited the Watercolours exhibition in the Verey Gallery. Prior to their visit the A-Level students researched selected works on display and prepared presentations which each student delivered in front of the artwork to the Club.
Below is Sophie Macfadyen’s presentation on A Rocky Road with Trees by Thomas Gainsborough.
This sketch is of a lone figure walking along a winding path into the distance. The path leads the figure as well as the viewer’s eyes through some woodland. There are buildings in the distance to the right which appear to be a manor house or farm and tall mountains beyond them. It is evening and the lighting gives the illusion that the moon is shining bright, illuminating the scene and dappling light through the trees and onto the ground.
The use of black and white alone in the picture gives a sense of eeriness as light and shadow are emphasised. It is the darkness that surrounds the figure that puts us on edge because it creates mystery as to what could be lurking around the corner. The open space which we see through also makes the figure seem vulnerable as they are alone in a wide, open space meaning that anyone and anything can jump out at them as well as be watching them, as the viewer is. The fact that the figure is so far away makes us feel helpless and as if we are about to watch something bad happen.
The tree on the right also adds to the eeriness of the scene as it twists and contorts as if to reach out to the figure. The idea of the trees having life and being able to watch and reach out to the lone figure gives the effect of the trees closing in on the person and trapping them. As well as this, the ground itself is also wrinkled and writhed making it seem like old skin, adding to the life-likeness of the landscape.
The use of linear strokes in the same direction creates a sense of unity. By pressing both hard and gently with the chalk, Gainsborough creates chiaroscuro, adding to the unsettling nature of the scene. This medium enables him to quickly and easily sketch out a complete scene either as a study for a painting or, as many were, just for fun. Overall, a great sense of mystery and tension is created, intriguing the viewer and drawing us in.
Gainsborough created over 1,100 drawings much like this in his lifetime. He had a huge interest in nature and depicting it. He often painted at night by candlelight which explains why the majority of his landscapes (especially the sketches) use tenebrism and appear to be set at dusk/night. This sketch was created at the end of his life therefore his technique and style is well established and the picture echoes his earlier works in both composition and subject. He is most famous for landscape compositions as well as detailed and delicate portraiture. His landscapes are typically of English countryside and are very effective at drawing the viewer’s eyes into the depth of the scene, usually via a path or open expanse of land. This technique is evident amongst many of his paintings and sketches such as Road From Market and Landscape in Suffolk. Gainsborough is renowned as being one of the best British landscape artists in history and I believe that he certainly deserves this title.
Sophie Macfadyen, St. George’s, Ascot