The campaign to purchase Gainsborough’s birthplace began in 1956. From the beginning, the house was created to be a centre for the arts, as well as a museum and monument, dedicated to one of Britain’s greatest 18th century artists, Thomas Gainsborough.
Interest was initially stimulated by three individuals: Michael Harvard, Aubrey Herbert and Sir Alfred Munnings. By October 1956 a Gainsborough’s House National Appeal Committee was formed, under the Chairmanship of the Mayor of Sudbury, Councillor Arthur Essex JP.
The committee brought together local businessmen and politicians, as well as those interested in art and history. Initially the President was The Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk; Vice-President was the artist Sir Alfred Munnings KCVC, PPRA, who lived at nearby Dedham.
Fund-raising included collection boxes in local hotels as well as in major galleries around the country. Artists were particularly supportive. Sir Alfred Munnings hoped to encourage others to make major donations, himself donating £1,500 from the proceeds of the sale of his painting of the Queen’s horse, Aureole in 1957.
The House was purchased on 20 January 1958 for £5, 250. By September, Gainsborough’s House Society was formally established to run the museum as an independent charity.
Following the successful acquisition of the building, local companies and individuals also gave materials and their labour to help renovate the building and the garden.
On 12 April 1961, Gainsborough’s House was formally opened to the public as a museum. Initially, there was no permanent collection. People were encouraged to donate or to lend works of art, furniture, decorative objects or Gainsborough memorabilia to furnish the house, as well as Gainsborough paintings, drawings and reproductions. Early donations included two Gainsborough drawings, teapots and a seventeenth-century chair. Other works loaned to the house in 1961 are still on display, including five pieces of furniture from the V&A. Six portraits by Gainsborough initially loaned by Lord de Saumarez, have since been acquired.
After it’s opening, appeals for funds were ongoing. Major building work was carried out in 1967 and initially it was hoped money could be raised for an endowment for the house to be taken over by the National Trust – a scheme that was later abandoned. Most recently over £1 million was raised to renovate the cottages and the main house and garden, work which was carried out in 2005-07. In 2000, a Friends organisation was established to help with fundraising and a programme of social events.
Gainsborough’s House now welcomes over 22,000 visitors per year and holds the most comprehensive collection of Thomas Gainsborough’s artwork within a single setting anywhere in the world.
Since the initial appeal in the 1950s, artists have responded to the House and its attractive walled garden. The image of the historic house itself, as much as that of the artist or his work, has been most widely used to promote the museum.
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