Gainsborough's view of St Mary's Church
Thomas Gainsborough painted St Mary's Church in 1748. He was 21 years of age and had just returned to Sudbury. In the same year he completed one of his most famous paintings, Mr and Mrs Andrews.
The work was commissioned by the Dean of Hadleigh, Dr Thomas Tanner for the Deanery Library. The Church had been greatly improved and beautified the year before.
The painting reveals a rather dilapidated churchyard and whilst the Church appears to be reasonably well-maintained, there is no evidence of a congregation.
There have been significant changes to the Church over the last 250 years but the view is still a familiar one to residents and visitors. Interestingly, Gainsborough appears to take the widest possible perspective of the Church and the Deanery Tower, almost 180 degrees. This leads to a distortion in the dimensions of the Church.
It would be impossible to gain such a view of the Church and its surroundings without demolishing the Guildhall and the Town Hall.
It is believed that the painting was based on sketches by Gainsborough's friend, Ipswich born, Joshua Kirby.
There are two groups in the foreground. Three youths are leaning on a tomb and seem to be simply "mucking about". There would appear to have been plenty of opportunity for young men to earn money by illegitimate means rather than as agricultural labourers at the time.
The town was the centre for smuggling activity and John Harvey, the leader of the Hadleigh Gang and owner of Pond Hall had just been committed to Newgate Gaol. He seems to have avoided execution as a result of a technicality but was transported for 7 years.
An even more seditious interpretation of the scene is that is based on Hogarth's engraving The "Idle 'Prentice at Play in the Churchyard during Divine Service" from the Industry and Idleness series which was produced the year before this painting. Hogarth reveals a scabby bunch of young men gambling with a clerical figure towering over them and threatening them with a cane.