The Mall in St. James's Park
© The Frick Collection
Oil painting of people standing in park
English (US)
Thomas Gainsborough could almost have observed this scene from his London residence, looking out into nearby St. James's Park or he could have conjured it up with the model landscapes and dolls he used to toy with in his studio, or perhaps he saw it in a dream. Today, the Mall has become the broad avenue the Queen descends in her carriage, coming from Buckingham Palace. This picture, already described by critics in the year it was painted -- 1783-- as "very fine" and "magnificent," was recognized as something new for Gainsborough-- it's neither one of his usual portraits with a landscape background nor a pure landscape, but instead a complex design of rhythmically arranged figures shown gliding effortlessly along the broad paths of a heavenly park. The sky is clear and unclouded, the distant trees seem to sway in a gentle wind, and all the characters are young, elegant, and carefree. The three vertical waves that sweep across the composition made it seem, in one contemporary's words, "all aflutter, like a lady's fan." The artist most frequently cited as a possible inspiration for this unusual painting was Watteau, the French artist who, sixty, seventy years before, had specialized in painting similar scenes of elegant folk promenading in idealized gardens. However, Watteau painted on a nearly miniature scale; one of his pictures would fit in a corner of this one. It was not merely for that reason that a contemporary of Gainsborough said, "The Mall comes nearest to the manner of Watteau, but it is Watteau far outdone."

The Mall in St. James's Park

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788)
Date: ca. 1783
Medium: Oil on canvas
47 1/2 x 57 7/8 in. (120.7 x 147 cm)
Credit Line: Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Accession number:1916.1.62
Additional Information
St. James’s Park was near Gainsborough’s London residence, Schomberg House, in Pall Mall. The long tree-lined avenue called the Mall, which runs south of St. James’s Palace, was a fashionable place for strolling in the eighteenth century. This composition is unusual among the artist’s later works and recalls, as several contemporary critics remarked, the fêtes galantes of Watteau. The feathery foliage and rhythmic design led one observer to describe the painting as “all aflutter, like a lady's fan.” Another reported that the artist composed the painting partly from dolls and a model of the park.

The large proportion of the canvas devoted to the setting testifies to Gainsborough’s abilities as a landscape painter and to his pioneering interest in the picturesque. Attempts to identify the ladies in the central group as the daughters of George III and the background figure under the tree at right as the artist himself are attractive but unsubstantiated.

Source: Art in The Frick Collection: Paintings, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Mrs. Gainsborough. Elwin. Howe (or Home). George Frost, Ipswich. S.H. Kilderbee, Ipswich. His sale, May 30, 1829, Christie’s, Lot 126, sold for £183 15s to Bone. Neeld family, Grittleton House, near Chippenham, Wiltshire. The Hon. Mrs. C. Hanbury. Bought from her by Agnew in February, 1916. Duveen. Frick, 1916.

Source: Paintings in The Frick Collection: American, British, Dutch, Flemish and German. Volume I. New York: The Frick Collection, 1968.