Gainsborough’s Daughters: Even Hard Nosed Business People Can Have Soft Centres

Thomas Gainsborough - The Painter's Daughters with a Cat. Circa 1760-1.  Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough - The Painter's Daughters with a Cat. Circa 1760-1. Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

I confess I’ve not been the greatest fan of Thomas Gainsborough. All those flattering portraits of lords, ladies and the landed gentry; of stout colonels, fashionable celebrities and bewigged countesses. All those haughty looks, formidable stares, self-satisfied glances. Gainsborough was clearly a gifted artist. With his fast, light-handed brushstrokes, he elegantly captured the confident swagger of eighteenth century English society. But to me his pictures displayed little warmth or psychological insight.

I may have misjudged him.

I recently attended an exhibition of Gainsborough’s family portraits. (‘Gainsborough’s Family Album’, the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 3 February.)

Gainsborough was the first British artist regularly to paint himself and his family members. Although he claimed to prefer landscape painting to the portraiture that made his name and paid his keep, these intimate works were a labour of love. Many were unfinished. Perhaps he liked to tinker away at them in his spare time. Perhaps he just preferred them that way.

With her rosy cheeks and black mantilla, Gainsborough’s wife Margaret looks somewhat long-suffering and resigned. In her white lace bow and bonnet, older sister Sarah, a milliner, suggests intelligence and determination. Artist nephew Gainsborough Dupont appears in a blue silk jacket, all handsome and romantic. Clerical brother Humphrey seems sincere and devout. Older brother John, unshaven with unruly hair, comes across as something of a rogue. Nicknamed ‘Scheming Jack’, John was endlessly pursuing ill-fated money-making projects. The picture is inscribed ‘Gainsborow’.

Thomas Gainsborough -The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly. Circa 1756.  Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough -The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly. Circa 1756. Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Gainsborough portrays his family as ordinary middle-class folk with characterful faces and stories to tell; interesting people in everyday attire, with varied preoccupations and concerns.

I was particularly struck by a sequence of paintings, created over many years, of Gainsborough’s two daughters. Margaret, aged 5, reaches for a butterfly, and 6-year-old Mary grasps her hand to protect her from an unseen thistle bush. A few years later Mary puts a comforting arm around her sister’s shoulder as she cradles a cat. Then Mary adjusts Margaret’s hair as she stares out at us, slightly annoyed perhaps. The two teenage sisters earnestly contemplate their art studies. The two society ladies in their twenties rejoice in their silk finery, attended by a faithful hound.

Seen through the paintings he made of his daughters, Gainsborough comes across, not as a sycophantic lover of celebrity elites, but rather as a protective, thoughtful and affectionate father. He wants the best for his girls. He believes in them.

I found myself rather liking this Gainsborough.

In the world of business we are sometimes quick to dismiss colleagues, competitors and clients as villains and fools. We leap to assumptions, jump to conclusions. We readily characterize people as simple-minded, selfish and soulless.

But we may simply have approached from the wrong angle, got off on the wrong foot. Often hard-nosed commercial people have soft centres; sometimes cool, calculating exteriors conceal tender, warm-hearted interior lives.

You just need to ask the right questions.

Thomas Gainsborough  Portrait of the Artist's Daughters , about 1763-64. Courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

Thomas Gainsborough Portrait of the Artist's Daughters, about 1763-64. Courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

As so often in life, things didn’t quite turn out for Gainsborough’s daughters as he or they had hoped. The young women didn’t pursue an artistic career. Aged 30 Mary married a musician, but it didn’t work out and she returned home two years later. Her mental health deteriorated, and Margaret, who never married, took care of her in seclusion in Acton. When Margaret passed away, Mary was committed to an asylum where she stayed for the rest of her life. 

Thomas Gainsborough himself died from cancer in 1788 at the age of 61. In his last letter he wrote, somewhat wistfully:

‘’Tis odd how all the childish passions hang about one in sickness. I am so childish that I could make a kite, catch gold finches, or build little ships.'

No. 212

Caravaggio’s Flashbulb Memories: Have We Forgotten How to Create Intense, Enduring Impressions?

The Taking of Christ

I recently attended an exhibition, at The National Gallery in London, of works by Caravaggio and the artists that followed immediately after him. (Beyond Caravaggio runs until 15 January.)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Milan around 1571. He moved to Rome when he was about 20 and it was here that he made his name. Caravaggio painted heavenly themes with low-life models; he told spiritual stories with earthy naturalism. We are drawn to the moral ambiguity, the proximity of the sacred and the profane. His characters are pensive, uncertain, intensely human. We see the brooding adolescent in the wilderness, the saint coming to terms with his calling, the artist complicit in the crime. Sometimes the subjects reach out and beckon us in. We are present, engaged, involved.

Caravaggio’s paintings also seem to be in suspended animation. He arrests time at the precise moment when the boy is bitten by a lizard; when the cardsharp considers his hand; when the deceiver realises her guilt. We witness the painful fall, the sudden recognition, the treacherous kiss.

These vivid effects are achieved in large part by lighting. The actors in Caravaggio’s dramas loom out at us from the darkness. They are spot-lit from above. It’s as if critical events have been illuminated by a flashbulb. Freeze-framed, they fix themselves in our consciousness.

“He invented a black world that had not existed before, certainly not in Florence or Rome. Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.”
David Hockney

In 1977 the psychologists Brown and Kulik posited the theory of Flashbulb Memory: that at certain moments of surprise or significance the brain captures vivid, detailed memories; and that these memories are more enduring, more consistent and more easily recalled than our usual, everyday recollections. We are prompted to record Flashbulb Memories at highly emotional or traumatic events. Like witnessing the death of JFK or participating in a car crash. Some have suggested that at these moments of crisis the brain records every last possible piece of stimulus because the smallest detail may be essential to survival.

You might imagine that in the world of marketing and communication, where we are engaged in the business of creating vivid and enduring recollections, we would be students of this kind of suspended animation, proponents of Flashbulb Memories. But our brand experiences are seldom heightened, our brand expressions rarely intense.

In the Content Era we seem more concerned with quantity than quality of engagement; more interested in frequency than depth of impression. Our brands are chatty, conversational, casual. We suffer from verbal prolixity and conceptual poverty. Our communication is always on, but our selectivity is often off. Why concentrate on a single moment when a hundred will do? Why focus on a single image when a thousand will do?

Perhaps we are not aware that in sacrificing selection, we may also be forfeiting intensity, and potentially therefore memorability. We do not realise that fewer, more precise, more emotionally acute images, can create deeper, more enduring, more personally meaningful recollections. Editing, selection and curation should be primary skills in the modern brand’s armory. But they seem woefully undervalued.

Saint John The Baptist in the Wilderness

‘Made some bad choices, then worse choices, then ran out of choices.’
Anna Nicole

Poor Caravaggio. His character was quarrelsome and cantankerous; his life was violent and turbulent. He drank too much, brawled too often and thought too little. He was a prototype of the impetuous artist, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’

In 1606 he killed a man after an argument over a tennis match and he had to flee Rome. He settled briefly in Naples, then Malta and Sicily, and then Naples again, all the time communicating with Rome in the quest for a pardon. When he painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, he put his own head on the platter. It was a plea for forgiveness. Or a portent of death.

In 1610 Caravaggio set out for Rome in anticipation of his long sought pardon. But he died on the journey, possibly from a fever. Some say he was, in fact, murdered by one of his many enemies; or poisoned from the lead that was commonly used in the paint of the time. Death by art, perhaps.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had a luminous talent and his life was intensely lived. And perhaps that’s one reason why his fame has spread so wide and his reputation will endure so long. Caravaggio’s was a flashbulb life.

No. 108




Strange Town: Alexander McQueen and the Art of Subversion

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

‘Fashion should be a form of escapism, not a form of imprisonment.’
Alexander McQueen.

I recently attended the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m no fashion expert, but I could admire the cut and craft, the elegance and imagination. Quite extraordinary.

It’s been well documented that McQueen was formally trained as a tailor on Savile Row and he worked for some time at the theatrical costumier’s, Berman’s and Nathan’s. His grounding in classical forms and historical styles is evident in his work.

With an exacting eye, McQueen explored period themes such as Regency England, Jacobite Scotland and Imperial Japan. But he also subverted those themes with curious twists and flamboyant turns; with studs, masks, lace and leather; with evocations of love and death. It produces a compelling effect. We are seduced by the elegance, the refinement, the classicism; but at the same time we feel a sense of doubt, darkness and danger. Our expectations are subverted. ‘The time is out of joint.’

McQueen seemed to understand the power of the past to create something entirely current; the potential of the unconscious to supply rich imaginative imagery; the capacity of disruption to manufacture memories. He regarded himself as a romantic, but clearly for him romance was mysterious, mystical and strange.

‘The new always carries with it the sense of violation, of sacrilege. What is dead is sacred; what is new, that is different, is evil, dangerous, or subversive.’
Henry Miller

We may sometimes imagine that we in the communication industry are engaged in subversion: we’re challenging convention, redefining language, re-writing code. But often our subversion is reduced to a bold casting decision, an unfamiliar colour-way, a surprising punch-line.  Surely if we were truly subversive, we’d be challenging at a deeper, more psychological, level.

We may also imagine that communication is the dream business: the alignment of brands with consumers’ dreams and fantasies; the suggestion that a brand might deliver new hopes and aspirations. But if we were serious about dreams, we would recognise that they are far more complex than the golden hayfields, scampering Labradors and smiling blonde children of advertising cliché. Our true fantasies are muddled, awkward and bizarre; our genuine reveries are strange and surreal; our real dreams are next to nightmares.

I have always liked the notion that dreams could, on the one hand, represent the manifestation of our deepest desires and anxieties; and, on the other hand, they could be the waste disposal system for the brain. Dreams are at once meaningful and meaningless. And the fact that we cannot distinguish one category of dream from the other is God’s joke.

I read a recent interview with the outgoing Director of the National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. In it he debunked the widely held view that the public of previous centuries were experts in the religious and literary semiotics encoded in the art of their day.

‘It’s often said that in the old days people knew all the stories behind these pictures, that they knew the myths and the whole of Ovid. The more I think about that, the more I think it is completely untrue. They didn’t know. So it was all a little more remote. I don’t think familiarity has ever been a stimulus for museum visitors. Strangeness more often helps with the initial impulse.

This sense that strangeness commands special attention tallies with my own movie memories. The scenes, images and impressions that have endured are often just a little odd: the children with animals’ heads in The Wicker Man, the bandaged nose in Chinatown, the zither theme in The Third Man, the romantic cycle ride in Butch Cassidy, the distant figure in a red anorak in Don’t Look Now…

Some years ago, a piece of research established that the recalled elements of popular advertising were often the quite incidental characters from the margins of the plot: the swan in Boddingtons 'Face Cream', the frog in Sony 'Balls', the big bald bloke with the ball bearings in Dunlop 'Tested for the Unexpected'. These elements were not fundamental to the comprehension of the narrative or the communication of the message. But they struck a chord, left a mark; perhaps precisely because they were not serving any purpose; because they were strange.

I wonder are the worlds of brands and advertising a little too familiar; a little too sane and sensible?

In applying rigorous thought to the creative process, do we leave enough room for the anomaly and abnormality that create enduring memories?

In endeavouring to express the aspirations that drive our consumers, do we properly accommodate the strangeness of their dreams?

Maybe we’d all be better off if we found ourselves in a strange town.

No. 42


The Episodic Brand?

The best play I’ve seen this year, The Father by Florian Zeller, will be coming to the West End in the Autumn. Book early, as Fred Pontin would say…

In The Father we observe the impact of dementia on an elderly Parisian, his family and carers. ‘I feel as if I’m losing all of my leaves’, says the aged man. It’s very moving.

What is particularly compelling about The Father is that we are invited to consider dementia from the perspective of the sufferer. For him most of the episodes in his life are completely coherent within themselves; they just stop correlating with other episodes. Memory is not lost in a simple, gradual process; it is eroded asymmetrically through a loosening of the seams between events, identities and relationships. Dementia comes across as a loss of the narrative that holds identity together.

Some have argued that there are in fact two types of people in the world: Narratives and Episodics (Lee Siegel/The End of the Episode/WSJ 3/8/2009). Those with a Narrative personality believe that their life tells a meaningful story; those with an Episodic personality believe that life is lived episode by episode, without adding up to any overriding coherent narrative.

The marketing and communications industry has, I think, always subscribed to a Narrative view of brands: we are endeavouring to tell a single, coherent, unifying story about our brand’s past, its purpose and its performance.

But what if brands are messier than this? What if time and experience across geographies and markets have created a complexity of character that resists reduction?

Are not some brands diminished by our efforts to constrain them within one coherent narrative?
What if yours is an Episodic Brand?


Making Time

In Beware of Mr Baker, the compelling documentary about the legendary Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, our eponymous hero has few good words to say about anyone.

He is however an admirer of his former colleague in Cream, Eric Clapton. ‘Eric had time’, he says and this is perhaps the ultimate tribute a drummer could pay anyone. We often talk of gifted footballers having time: the ability to appear unhurried, to slow things down a little, to pause to think.

In modern business we are surrounded by people who seem to have no time at all. They’re so important that they consistently arrive late and then leave early. I have always admired senior executives who, despite undoubted pressures, seem the masters of time, not the victims of it.


We Did Our Best…

There’s a very fine portrait by Van Eyck in The National Gallery. It features a mature man staring out at us from under an extravagantly tied red head-dress. Some have suggested this is a self-portrait, given the directness of the gaze and the honesty of the facial flaws.

Above the portrait in the original frame Van Eyck has inscribed ‘Als ich kan’, which I understand translates loosely as ‘As well as I can.’ I did a little research. It transpires that ‘Als ich kan’ was something of a personal motto for Van Eyck as it appears on a number of his paintings. Some have suggested that he was prone to promote his personal reputation and that this was an early exercise in branding. (It could also be a play on words: ‘As well as Van Eyck can.’)

Given the extraordinary beauty of the painting, it’s easy to interpret ‘As well as I can’ as a proud boast. But I’m inclined to say Van Eyck was expressing a timeless creative sentiment: ‘I did my best. You may not like it. It may not be good enough for you. But, take it or leave it, this is it.’ This is a sentiment I have often felt in the wake of a mediocre meeting, a poor pitch, a critical Client…

I read this week that researchers have established that perfectionism is a corrosive force that leads to stress and burnout. (Huffington Post/4 August 2015) No surprise here perhaps. To my mind the quest for perfection, winning at all cost, ‘whatever it takes,’ can erode culture. These mindsets create a loss of proportion, a diminution of self worth. They’re corporate head-banging.

I’m with Van Eyck. I think that, whatever the prize, we should just endeavour to do our best. No more, no less.


Regrets, I’ve Had Quite a Lot Really…

Whilst, of course, Piaf’s ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ is a magnificent tune delivered with passion, it’s not a sentiment I share.  For me the song should have been titled ‘J’Ai Beaucoup de Regrets.’ I think regrets are healthy, humbling and an important part of self-knowledge. Here are a few I’d care to mention…

I wish I’d drunk less and danced more in my 20s; I wished I’d worked less and played more football in my 30s; I wish I’d eaten less and read more in my 40s. And more besides…

No. 41