Cleaning Gainsborough's 'Blue Boy'

September 13 2017


Thomas Gainsborough's celebrated 'Blue Boy' has been taken off display at the Huntington art gallery in California ahead of a two year restoration project. Emily Sharpe in The Art Newspaper reports:

Part of the conservation will take place in one of the museum’s public galleries in a special exhibition called Project Blue Boy, due to open in autumn 2018.

According to Christina O’Connell, the senior paintings conservator at the Huntington, recent treatments have focused on adding layers of varnish so the picture could remain on display. This has obscured some details and caused the colours to “appear hazy and dull”.

The Huntington will have a special site dedicated to the project here. THe Blue Boy is now thought by some scholars to show Gainsborough's nephew, Gainsborough Dupont. When the painting was sold to Henry Huntington in 1921 for $728,000 it was the world's most expensive painting. These days, 18th Century British portraiture is not nearly so valuable, relatively. But who knows how long that will last. Fashion and value in the art market are fickle things.

Incidentally, to give you an idea of just how expensive the painting was in real terms in 1921, the seller was the 2nd Duke of Westminster, a man who, as the richest man in Britain, hardly needed the money. But then that side of my family (to whom, incidentally, I am related only genetically, not financially) has always been very canny with money.

Update - a reader writes:

The Blue Boy was not the world’s most expensive painting at the time of its sale. That record was still held by Leonardo’s Benois Madonna, which Nicholas II acquired – in competition with Duveen and American magnates – for $1.5M (£310,000) in 1914. By comparison, The Blue Boy fetched a mere £148,000 in 1921.

The Westminsters must have been short of cash at the time as they also off-loaded – to Huntingdon as well – Gainsborough’s Cottage Door and Reynolds Sarah Siddons as The Tragic Muse, both for around £70,000.

I don't think it was a shortage of cash, rather a certain family Philistinism.

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