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New director of Sudbury birthplace of world-famous artist Thomas Gainsborough will steer award-winning venue towards key anniversary





A major milestone is on the horizon for the new director of an award-winning Suffolk venue dedicated to the legacy of a world-famous artist.

Calvin Winner has taken the helm at Gainsborough’s House, in Sudbury as it approaches one of the most significant dates in its history – 300 years since Thomas Gainsborough was born.

“In 2027 it will be the 300th anniversary of his birth. Everything we are doing now leads to that moment,” said Calvin, who started his new job in early May.

Gainsborough's House new director Calvin Winner (3rd left) with team members Lex Gortsilas, Olivia Shrubsole, Polly Hodgson, Catherine King, Terry Groom, Trudy Pickerin and Charlotte Dixon.
Gainsborough's House new director Calvin Winner (3rd left) with team members Lex Gortsilas, Olivia Shrubsole, Polly Hodgson, Catherine King, Terry Groom, Trudy Pickerin and Charlotte Dixon.

Over the past few years the museum and gallery centred on the house where Thomas Gainsborough was born has undergone a transformation.

Calvin, who is thrilled to be promoting the legacy of an artist he has long admired, has arrived less than two years after the completion of a £10 million project to renovate the original house and build new, modern galleries.

Visitors now walk through time from the historic house where the painter grew up into a stunning three-storey extension which blends 21st century design with traditional local materials.

Gainsbourgh's House print studio and new extension
Gainsbourgh's House print studio and new extension

In May it was named Building of the Year in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ East Awards and will now go forward to the national competition.

The RIBA jury said it was impressed to see a significant regional and national museum emerge from the adaptation of what was previously a small, local resource. As a whole, the project stands as a model for harmonising heritage preservation and contemporary needs,” they added.

“When I heard I had the job I was hugely excited because of the huge potential. I couldn’t be happier,” said Calvin, who is married with three children. One son is at university, his daughter is about to study fine art in London and his younger son is doing his GCSEs.

New Gainsborough's' House director Calvin Winner with one of his favourite Gainsborough landscapes
New Gainsborough's' House director Calvin Winner with one of his favourite Gainsborough landscapes

He is very keen to stress his gratitude to predecessor Mark Bills, who left earlier this year to concentrate on personal projects after driving the regeneration project from start to finish..

“I have a lot to be grateful to Mark for. Without his ambition of setting up that project and seeing it through, it wouldn’t have been possible. It has taken Gainsborough's House to another level,” he said

“The new galleries are there and the old house has been refurbished, so the Gainsborough legacy is more secure. The plan is that Gainsborough’s House becomes a nationally important art museum and we expect we will attract people not just from the region but also nationally and potentially internationally.”

Previous Gainsboroughs House director, Mark Bills, at the site of the new extension which involved the demolition of Sudbury's disused former labour exchange. Photo: Richard Marsham
Previous Gainsboroughs House director, Mark Bills, at the site of the new extension which involved the demolition of Sudbury's disused former labour exchange. Photo: Richard Marsham

He believes Suffolk should take enormous pride in the fact two of the most celebrated British painters in history, Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable, were born in the county.

“Gainsborough is an iconic figure in British art and for us to be here in Sudbury in his house is a huge asset. It opens doors internationally.

“In terms of internationally-known British artists the top three are Gainsborough, Constable and Turner – and two of them come from Suffolk. Everyone in Suffolk should be hugely proud. It is a powerhouse with these two great artists – and the fact we have this house where Gainsborough was born is a bonus.”

The Georgian frontage of the house in Sudbury where Thomas Gainsborough was born.
The Georgian frontage of the house in Sudbury where Thomas Gainsborough was born.

Getting to know the old house, where Thomas was born the youngest of nine children in 1727, has been one of the joys of his new job.

What is now number 46 Gainsborough Street – previously Sepulchre Street – was bought by the artist’s parents John and Mary in 1722 for £230. Its Georgian-style brick frontage conceals a timber-framed house dating back to the 16th century.

The house became a museum and gallery following a campaign in the 1950s by the Gainsborough’s House Society to raise the money to buy it.

The Music Room at Gainsborough's House, which is likely to have been the former master bedroom where the aritst would have been born. Picture by Mark Westley
The Music Room at Gainsborough's House, which is likely to have been the former master bedroom where the aritst would have been born. Picture by Mark Westley

“I’ve always loved artists’ houses,” said Calvin. “That direct connection has always appealed to me. And the fact we have here practising artists on site in the Print Studio is hugely attractive … an artist’s house where artists still work.

“To me it seems that the music room (in the old house) was once the master bedroom, which is where Gainsborough would have been born. We have a 400 year-old mulberry tree in the garden where young Tom would have played.

“I go into the old house and into the garden and his presence is palpable. His presence is definitely there, in the space where the artist has been. Then you step out into the town and landscape and that’s what he was inspired by.

Gainsborough's House from the garden
Gainsborough's House from the garden

“To mark his 300th anniversary we are going to have a significant exhibition here. We’re working in collaboration with the Tate and National Galleries to make that happen.

“Between now and 2027 the plan is that the exhibitions will begin step by step to increase and attract more visitors – a mix of historic and contemporary work.

“Going forward we will probably have more contemporary shows here than previously, but Gainsboorugh and his times will still be important.”

Cedric Morris and Lett Haines, whose work will be on show at Gainsborough's House this summer. Photo: Cedric Morris estate/ Tate Archive
Cedric Morris and Lett Haines, whose work will be on show at Gainsborough's House this summer. Photo: Cedric Morris estate/ Tate Archive

The next big exhibition will feature two renowned artists – painter and plantsman Cedric Morris and his partner, Lett Haines, who lived and taught for many years in Hadleigh.

Their students included the celebrated Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling, who was born in Sudbury and is a staunch supporter of Gainsborough’s House, where she had an exhibition last year.

“They offer the double attraction of being regionally important and also nationally important artists,” said Calvin.

“The benchmark is always going to be Thomas Gainsborough going forward … we will show great art nationally and internationally that needs to be of the same standard as Gainsborough himself.

“We have the potential to become an internationally important museum and people who have visited us see that potential.

Calvin came to Gainsborough’s House from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, where he was head of collections.

“I’m originally from west Norfolk and went to Camberwell College of Art where I did history of art. After college I went straight to working in museums.

“I was at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, then at the Tate Gallery in London for 10 years, where I was involved in the project to create Tate Modern.

“Then I went to the Sainsbury Centre, where I stayed for 16 years. I wasn’t actively looking for another job but I was ready for the next opportunity.

“What attracted me to Gainsborough’s House was the capital project that was already here, the fact it was an artist’s house, the print studio, and the ability to stage major exhibitions.

“For me the fact Suffolk has this great artistic legacy is hugely appealing, and we are surrounded by these beautiful landscapes.

“Thomas Gainsborough was one of the first British artists to start making landscapes and my admiration for him developed during my time at the Tate.

“From a young age his talent was clearly noticed. He was clearly precocious. He was this young boy with this huge talent who quite quickly became a virtuoso artist.

“He produced incredible paintings at a very young age. Mr and Mrs Andrews and Cornard Wood were painted when he was barely 20.”

While many of Gainsborough’s best known pictures are portraits – he was a favourite of the Royal Family painting both King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte – his heart lay with landscape.

And it was his love of the views of Suffolk remembered from his younger days that influenced him for the rest of his lie.

“We know that he preferred his landscapes to portraits, but he had to live within his time and painters, unless they were gentlemen, had to do portraits,” Calvin explained.

“The whole atmosphere of his landscapes is Suffolk. Even as a child he was absorbed into the landscape and out sketching.

“His parents really appreciated his talent. They supported him and sent him to be apprenticed in London. It seems like they were a very close family and supported each other.

“From what we read about Gainsborough he was definitely a character. He liked to be with friends, he loved music, he was an outward looking person.

“What he achieved in his lifetime is astonishing. He came from the merchant classes – his parents were weavers. He wasn’t born of high standing and got to achieve greatness through talent.”

Thomas went to live in Ipswich after marrying his wife Margaret. They had three daughters, although the eldest died in infancy.

The family then moved to fashionable Bath in pursuit of richer clients, staying for 15 years, and finally to London.

“He had really made it at that stage, but he was always in regular contact with his family back in Suffolk,” said Calvin. “We have archive letters in our collections.”

The House also owns what is probably the largest collection of Gainsborough’s works in the country, which are shown in rotation.

A Gainsborough gallery in the new building, its walls lined with sumptuous dark green silk from Sudbury company Humphries Weaving, is the perfect backdrop for the artist’s larger works, including those on loan.

The Timothy and Mary Clode gallery, named after a couple who were major donors to the restoration, is where major exhibitions are staged.

The old house with its more intimate, domestic feel, has rooms dedicated to aspects of Gainsborough’s life, and also shows work by other artists.

“Normally we have two or three exhibitions at one time – two or three in the new gallery, not counting the Gainsborough Room, and one in the old house.

“I feel very fortunate to be here to represent Thomas Gainsborough and have the museum where we can present impressive exhibitions – we have history and huge potential,” Calvin said.

For more information on Gainsborough’s House, its history and exhibitions go online to gainsborough.org