Gainsborough was an ambitious and promising young artist when he moved to the fashionable spa city of Bath in western England in 1759 at the suggestion of his friend Philip Thicknesse. There Gainsborough achieved almost overnight success. This portrait of Thicknesse’s future wife, Ann Ford, contributed significantly to his reputation. Gainsborough had made few full-length portraits before that time, but the painting of Miss Ford, a well-known beauty and amateur musician, was his first in Bath. With dashing effect, he combined the current taste for informality and animated paint handling with the grandeur of works by Anthony van Dyck, whose portraits were highly regarded in England.
In interpreting van Dyckian “grand manner” portraiture with brilliant and distinctive brushwork, and by depicting his subject with vivacity, Gainsborough created a memorable image that proved profoundly influential for British portraitists in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth.
The aristocratic Ann Ford’s public musical performances were a cause célèbre in the polite world of Georgian England, leading to a pamphlet war between her supporters and her critics. As Gainsborough himself would later put it: “[She was] partly admired and partly laugh’d at at every Tea Table.”