A landscape of broccoli and rocks may not be the most inspired description of the backdrop to Thomas Gainsborough’s renowned The Blue Boy (1770), it is not, however, wholly unfitting. The British artist was known to play with his food, per se, using said objects to configure an arrangement as inspiration for the imaginary vistas of his dramatic landscape portraits. All this provides, perhaps, a sound rebuttal to the stern dinnertime warning, “don’t play with your food.” In all seriousness, however, the beloved artwork is about to get a serious and long-overdue check-up, in the form of intensive x-ray analysis, varnish removal, canvas stabilization and other conservation efforts, nearly all taking place in public view.
The legacy of The Blue Boy in Southern California dates nearly to the founding of The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino in 1919. Just two years later, it became the most expensive painting ever sold, when Henry E. Huntington purchased the work for $728,800—that’s a lot of greens—in 1921. Already one of the best-known paintings of its time, the painting went on a hyped-up “Farewell Tour” of England, with an estimated 90,000 viewing it at the National Gallery in London alone, making a brief layover in New York before taking residence in the new owner’s mansion on the sprawling desert estate in the remote city of San Marino, California. Unlike today’s duplicitous farewell tours, this one proved genuine. Since arriving in 1922, the young man cloaked in blue has not strayed from his outpost on the edge of civilization, or in the eyes of most early 20th century art aficionados, far beyond it. He has remained on guard here ever since while having an imagined romance, in the eyes of many, with Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie (1794), the last painting acquired by Huntington who died in 1927.
This is not the first conservation Gainsborough’s painting has undergone in the past century, but by far the most extensive. In fact, the painting has received six previous treatments in the past century, which will now also play a role in how the work is handled. The Huntington appointed an in-house conservation team about five years ago, allowing for a more intensive, and public, process than previously enjoyed by the 239-year-old painting. “This project actually began over a year ago,” explains Christina O’Connell, Senior Paintings Conservator at the Huntington, “we began with a careful technical study where we were looking at the materiality of the painting, and understanding the original materials Gainsborough used, how they’ve aged over time, and all the past conservation treatments and how those have aged over time.”
Although, in O’Connell’s works, “some of the past treatments have been a bit brief,” they uncovered a series of surprises over the decades. Suspicious markings at the top of the canvas had long intrigued scholars, and in 1939, x-rays revealed that Gainsborough had started with different plans for this canvas. It was the beginning of an older gentleman’s portrait, originally much larger, as the man’s head now goes beyond the canvas frame. Ouch. The work was barely begun before being scrapped, the artist the cropped the canvas and remounted to a smaller frame, though at 70-by-48 inches, the nearly life-sized portrait could hardly be considered “small.”
More recently, a 1994 restoration revealed a starling surprise: the young man was originally not alone in the windswept landscape. Don’t worry Pinkie, it was not a human companion but a small fluffy dog at the boy’s feet, identified by some as an English Water Spaniel, patiently waiting at his boy’s feet to be rediscovered. Unlike the faint pentimento left by the earlier unfinished portrait, Gainsborough carefully hid the details of the dog with a small outcropping of rocks painted to hide the original texture of the faithful pooch’s paws.
Of all the mysteries revealed through successive scientific examinations, the most obvious question remains unanswered: just who is this tousle-haired young man? Without any records of a commission, it was long attributed to be a portrait of the painting’s original owner, Jonathan Buttall as a young man. However, as associate curator of British Art at The Huntington Melinda McCurdy points out, recent investigations have brought that attribution into question: “When Gainsborough exhibited it at the Royal Academy, he didn’t give it the name Portrait of Jonathan Buttall,he called it simply Portrait of a Young Gentlemen—anonymous. It was not until the early 19th century that the painting got attached to the painting. It probably is not him.” New research suggests that it may have been the artist’s nephew, a young Dupont Gainsborough, who was apprenticed to Gainsborough in 1772. Additionally, there is also an additional bust portrait of Dupont painted in nearly identical attire just a few years later, and, McCurdy adds, “we do know that costume he was wearing was a studio prop.”
The Blue Boy’s attire was surely a key part of the work’s legacy. The beautiful blue costume itself was reportedly a source of contention between Gainsborough and his lifelong rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, although modern historians largely assign that as a post-mortem rumor. For Gainsborough, dressing the young lad in such luxurious attire from the previous century was more than fanciful nostalgia, it established him as the artistic heir to the legendary Baroque painter, Anthony van Dyck. Gainsborough first came across van Dyck’s work in the early years of his career, after moving his family to Bath, where it was among the wealthy collections of his potential patrons. The Flemish painter, still in vogue over 100 years after his death, was a vital influence to the young artist, as evident in the bravado of brushwork in his mature paintings, such as The Blue Boy.
Most of the conservation efforts will take place in public, and Pinkie’s, adoring view, allowing patrons an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the conservation process and research-related ephemera. For visitors, it is almost startling to see the painting taken from the wall, removed from the ornate, gilt frame and placed on the conservation easel, bringing his gaze nearly directly level with our own. Oddly akin to the Coppertone Girl, we see the equivalent of Blue Boy’s tan line, with the raw edges of canvas exposed to the open air. Over the next year, the painting will remain unframed, and mostly on public view in the gallery, as it goes through multiple stages of repair and restoration.
“Some of the past treatments have been a bit brief, because we did not want to take the painting off view from the public,” O’Connell explains. The condition issues have started to add up, creating a long to-do list for the in-house team. This includes addressing “upbraided paint, flaking paint lifting from the surface, vulnerable to permanent loss many past conservation efforts have aged, degraded and outlived their usefulness. So we have some ultra-violent light images showing how uneven those layers and how discolored they are.”
It is quite fitting that Gainsborough’s most-famous painting would find home in the galleries among the works of great British portraitists, and continuing his longtime rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds. Perhaps ever more, that The Blue Boy would take root amidst the expansive gardens at The Huntington, for while painting portraits paid the bills, it is well known that the Suffolk-born artist loved to paint the outdoors (as did John Constable, a Suffolk-compatriot of the following generation). Embodied in this painting, even as the young man dominates the composition, we also see Gainsborough’s true passion: the sublime beauty of the natural world.