Among the many treasures housed in The Huntington’s art galleries, none has a more storied history than Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy.” It had been a beloved artwork in its homeland – images of the boy in the striking blue attire appeared on various souvenir items. Its purchase in 1921 by an American collector caused quite a stir among the British people and they took to the streets when they found out that it was leaving for America.
“The Blue Boy” has occupied an important place at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens since it opened in 1928. Along with the breathtaking and expansive gardens, the many valuable collections in the library – William Shakespeare’s quarto and folio editions, a rare Gutenberg bible on vellum, the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” and Benjamin Franklin’s handwritten autobiography, among them, – the impressive works of art in the various galleries, the “Blue Boy” attracts more than 800,000 visitors every year.
In 2018, The Huntington embarked on “Project Blue Boy,” a nearly three-year conservation project to analyze, stabilize, clean, and restore the painting. To provide visitors a peek into the art and science of the process in real time, much of the conservation work was performed in public. Senior paintings conservator Christina O’Connell, who led the project, gave approximately 170 gallery talks and answered questions posed by the more than 200,000 visitors who came to watch the progress between 2018 and 2019.
The restored “Blue Boy” was scheduled to be back at the Thornton Portrait Gallery on March 26, 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic delayed that much anticipated unveiling (read related article here). While it was back at its usual spot in September last year, it was only on April 17 this year – when The Huntington’s art galleries were again open to the public – that visitors got to see Gainsborough’s masterpiece.
And then last month, The Huntington announced that “The Blue Boy” will be returning to England 100 years after it left. From Jan. 25 through May 3, 2022, it will be on display at the National Gallery in London – a reversal of events when it was last viewed by 90,000 people during its last three weeks there before it departed for its new home in California.
This time, the news stunned art experts. In a Los Angeles Times article published on July 6, art critic Christopher Knight wrote that he asked Mark Leonard, a retired conservator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, for a comment. Leonard replied that the panel of nine American and European art conservators – experts the museum convened in December 2018 to evaluate the “Blue Boy’s” condition – expressed shock about the decision made by The Huntington’s board of trustees.
Knight further wrote that “sending the picture was unanimously opposed by the expert team, who believed travel puts the prized work at grave risk. They warned of potential structural damage to the 250-year-old canvas from the arduous trip.”
While it’s magnanimous of The Huntington board to lend “The Blue Boy” to the National Gallery so that others across the Atlantic are afforded the opportunity to once more see it, we in the San Gabriel Valley are also very protective of it. We have wonderful memories of going to the Thornton Gallery to gaze in awe at Gainsborough’s genius, and we want to make sure the painting celebrates its next centennial.
How do you feel about “The Blue Boy” traveling 5,429 miles and being gone for four months? We invite you to send us an email and tell us, in 100 words or fewer, your thoughts about it and share your experience looking at this magnificent work of art. Send your email to: [email protected] com. Unless you request otherwise, we will include your name when we publish our informal poll.