Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy”, arguably America’s most famous European painting, will travel to London for an exhibition in January at Britain’s National Gallery – the first time the beloved icon has left the walls of the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens of San Marino since its acquisition a century ago.
“We were shocked,” Mark Leonard said when The Times asked about the decision made by the museum’s board last week. Leonard, the retired curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a leading voice in conservation. The “us” is a group of nine prominent American and European art curators who gathered at the Huntington in December 2018 to assess the condition of the painting.
The team of experts unanimously opposed sending the photo overseas, which believed the travel endangered prized work. They warned of potential structural damage to the 250-year-old canvas from the arduous journey. The museum administration canceled their notice.
Huntington’s iconic work of art is a brilliant image of a life-size, red-cheeked young man wearing a flashy blue satin tunic, breeches and cape of an aristocrat from in the old days. It was last seen in Europe at the National Gallery in London before leaving by steamboat for the United States. The surprise announcement of his return trip to the UK was shrouded in enthusiastic tributes.
“A big comeback. ” “Unprecedented.” “A unique opportunity in a century. “
Ninety thousand people blocked off the National Gallery in January 1922 to say goodbye to what many saw as a disappearing national treasure. Enthusiastic crowds can also be expected on next year’s four-month visit, guaranteed to be a media sensation.
The team of restorers was evaluating an essential treatment course for the delicate canvas, while the possibility of the loan was already under discussion. They warned that the image should never travel.
Among the group were Michael Gallagher, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Rica Jones, Gainsborough scholar and retired curator at Tate Britain, the national collection of British art housed in London on the banks of the Thames; Mark Aronson of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven; and Mikkel Scharff, director of the Conservation Institute of the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen.
A concise two-page letterhead paper from Huntington recommending a treatment plan for the masterpiece, reviewed by The Times, is unambiguous. He concludes that “the panel strongly advises against lending ‘The Blue Boy’. “
In two paragraphs and seven bullets, the warning is repeated three times. The conservation treatment suggested by the expert group was even cited as a reason for refusing a loan.
It is not clear why the panel’s opinion was rejected.
Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence did not respond to a request for comment. In a press release announcing the London exhibit, Lawrence said: “Given ‘The Blue Boy’s’ iconic status at The Huntington, this is an unprecedented loan, which we have looked at very carefully.
Art museum director Christina Nielsen said in an email that the advisability of a loan was not part of the panel’s brief, “because we didn’t want treatment decisions to be influenced by travel considerations “. Nielsen said after the conservation work was completed, a second group of curators and anonymous curators met in September 2019 and determined that only one loan in London could be taken.
Conservation standards generally favor the least invasive procedure to maintain the artistic and historical integrity of an object. “The Blue Boy” sets itself apart by retaining much of its original structural integrity.
Joseph Duveen, the aggressive New York art dealer who sold the masterpiece to Henry E. Huntington and his wife Arabella, a prominent art collector, in 1921, has regularly added new back liners Old Master canvases to embellish them and sell them to American plutocrats of the golden age. . The dealership’s rough relining process often resulted in a flattened surface paint.
For reasons unknown, “The Blue Boy” escaped this common fate. It retains both a two-century-old liner – “delicate but healthy,” in Leonard’s description – and the vivid surface brush Gainsborough is acclaimed for.
Two conservation plans for the stabilization of “The Blue Boy” were possible – one elaborate, the other minimal. The elaborate plan would interfere with the rare structural integrity of the painting. The minimal plan was therefore chosen, “based on the fact that the image does not travel”.
The group also rejected any idea of choosing a different course of action so that the loans could be made safely. “According to professional guidelines for practice and ethical conduct,” the curators wrote, treatments are “not undertaken solely to prepare an object for potential travel.”
The Huntington completed the selected conservation work over the years 2019 and 2020. The lengthy procedure included removing layers of yellowed varnish, deep cleaning, adhesion of chipped and flaking paint, in-painting where losses were observed and the stabilization of the canvas support and wooden stretcher bars.
Despite the panel’s warning, the museum subsequently secured the loan agreement. No loan fees are charged, but an as yet unannounced reciprocal loan has been guaranteed to the Huntington by the National Gallery.
Nielsen and Lawrence, former president of Sarah Lawrence College, had both been hired in San Marino just months before the international team of restaurateurs met. Preparations for the institution’s centenary celebrations in 2019 were well advanced. Looking back on Huntington’s past, the iconic story of “The Blue Boy” gained momentum.
Leonard, who had overseen conservation issues at the Huntington during his long tenure at Getty, before the San Marino Museum recruited its own full-time curator on staff, was hired as a consultant for the project. He knew “The Blue Boy” well for having done a little treatment on the web just before his retirement in 2010.
Ironically, two participants in the team’s deliberations are affiliated with the two museums now involved in the loan deal that the panel unanimously advised against.
Paul Ackroyd is the highly regarded curator of paintings at the National Gallery in London. Huntington’s restaurateur Christina O’Connell suggested the chosen treatment.
It was performed in a fascinating exhibit, “Project Blue Boy,” which allowed audiences to watch her work on cleaning and restoring the canvas in a studio set up inside a museum gallery. The painting has since been returned to its central place in the museum’s Thornton Portrait Gallery.
O’Connell and Ackroyd did not respond to requests for comment.
The trip to London from Los Angeles will be arduous for a delicate work of art. Dangers lie in wait.
The painting will be removed from its air-conditioned gallery, crated, trucked over surface streets to the airport, loaded into an aircraft hold, flown over across country and an ocean (possibly with a stop en route), landed in London, trucked to the National Gallery, unpacked and set up in another air-conditioned gallery. In May, at the end of the exhibition, the procedure and the itinerary will be reversed.
The concern of the conservation committee is that the structural instability of aging paintings, canvas, wood and liner will be accelerated in a way that does not happen to a fragile but largely intact old master painting undisturbed on a museum wall. Transit vibrations and climate change are among the main concerns, although they are unlikely to cause visible damage to the naked eye.
“There won’t be any crumbs at the bottom of the till when she comes back,” Leonard said. The evil will be more insidious.
Previous loan requests for the photo, which is synonymous with Huntington’s identity, have been turned down. Now, when a museum in Paris, Dubai or Shanghai calls you, it will be more difficult to say no.
Breaking the precedent of refusing all loan applications creates a dead end for the institution. Saying no generates international ill will towards the Huntington on the part of those who have been pushed back, while saying yes sets the stage for further damage to the paint.
Before coming to America, “The Blue Boy” was in the collection of the Duke of Westminster, considered the richest peer in Britain who would later support Nazi appeasement. During World War I, the painting was sent to a safe place at the National Gallery, where it remained until it was sold.
Duveen bought it from the Duke, who needed money to pay his taxes, in October 1921. In November 1921, Henry and Arabella Huntington acquired it from Duveen for a princely sum – the equivalent of over $ 11 million. dollars today. With great fanfare, the photo traveled across the country by train to Los Angeles the following year.
Since then, the painting has hung in their sumptuous estate in the tony suburb of San Marino.