“The Blue Boy (1770)” by Thomas Gainsborough is arguably one of the most iconic British artworks. A highlight of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens collection, the painting is undergoing a major restoration and the museum put the project on public display. They have set up a special satellite conservation studio in their Thornton Portrait Gallery, offering visitors a rare look at the processes used by art conservator Christina O’Connell over the next year to repair the work.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) painted the vibrant portrait of a young man in a blue doublet with a lace collar and matching knee breeches, emulating the work of Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck. However, unlike works typical of the period, the shimmering blue satin 250 years later (and pre-restoration cleaning) is eye-catching. It is rendered in complex layers of indigo, cobalt, lapis, turquoise and other shades using vigorous strokes.
Museums strive to restore art pieces to their original visual glory for future generations while honoring the artist’s original work. Classic art works fade, paint flakes off, varnishes discolor and the canvases and backing sustain damage over time. In addition, newer scientific techniques have emerged that allow conservators to study in minute detail the materials the artist used, bits the creator redid as part of the creative process, and previously undetectable information.
Prior to officially beginning the public face of “Project Blue Boy,” Huntington staff estimate they already put in 800 hours of analysis and preliminary work on the art piece. They used a surgical microscope to examine it closely. They also used newer digital technology to create high resolution X-rays, from which they discovered an old once- repaired, 11-inch tear in the canvas. The protective backing is not torn, so they deduced that the tear took place before the painting was lined. The project plan will also address the fact that the paint is flaking in places. Dirt is trapped under some varnish, dulling the colors, and the varnish itself has discolored with age.
In 1994, an X-ray had shown an image of a small dog that must have been painted over before the artwork was completed. With newer infrared imaging techniques, including reflectography that renders some pigments transparent, shows the effort Gainsborough used to cover up the dog. He added layers of paint on top of the image to blend it into the background and even turned the dog’s paws into rocks in the foreground.
The “Project Blue Boy” lab has images for people to see and detailed panels about the investigative and restoration processes. Visitors will be able to see up-close projections of O’Connell at work through January on Thursdays, Fridays and the first Sunday of each month, although the schedule is subject to change. After that time, it will go off view for a few months for structural work, such as repairing the wooden stretcher and the lining. Then the artwork and public effort will return to the gallery for final work, including “in-painting” areas of the canvas with the goal of matching the texture and opacity of Gainsborough’s work.
This is the sixth time conservation work has been done on “Blue Boy” since the Henry Huntington acquired it in 1921 for $728,000 (then the highest price ever paid for a painting). Since then, Blue Boy has become one of the most iconic paintings in British and American history. However, previous conservations were more temporary fixes that primarily involved touching up the paint and applying new varnish. This overhaul will be far more comprehensive. The Huntington, which is located in the San Marino part of Los Angeles County, will have information about and the “Blue Boy” restoration project on display until September 2019.
By Dyanne Weiss
Huntington Library: Project Blue Boy
Los Angeles Times: ‘Blue Boy’ revisited: The Huntington is saving its 18th-century masterpiece — and you get to watch
The National Gallery: Thomas Gainsborough: 1727 – 1788
Photo by Dyanne Weiss of conservator Christina O’Connell in front of “The Blue Boy.”