For nearly a century, “The Blue Boy” has been a leading draw for the Huntington Library, and for much of the next 12 months, visitors can witness a large part of the artwork’s restoration.
Project Blue Boy kicked off Saturday in the Thorn-ton Portrait Gallery, where a conservation studio was created alongside several pieces of didactic material that essentially make an exhibit out of the restoration process. There the venerable painting, the English artist Thomas Gainsborough’s signature work, recently awaited its audience, propped up on a large easel instead of hanging in its usual ornate centerpiece portrait on the western wall.
“Very few art institutions can be associated with one iconic work of art,” said Catherine Hess, the Huntington’s chief curator of European art, during a special preview of the exhibit. “This is a very important thing for us. This work of art has captivated generations and now will be able to do so for generations to come.”
The restoration work will be completed by senior paintings conservator Christina O’Connell and associate curator of British art Melinda McCurdy, and visitors can watch them work from 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, as well as 2-4 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month through approximately January. During this time, the duo will further examine the painting itself while performing paint stabilization, surface cleaning and removal of non-original varnish and overpaint.
“When we remove those layers, there will be a color difference,” O’Connell explained. “There will be more contrast between the colors, so we expect the spatial depth to increase.”
Once that is completed, “The Blue Boy,” created around 1770, will be removed from public view to undergo structural work on the canvas and application of new varnish, which involves the use of equipment that cannot be moved and will take three or four months. It will return to public view after that for in-painting until the restoration is complete.
“We think we know this picture, but the thing is, we don’t know everything about it, and this project is really going to give us the tools to understand this canvas better,” McCurdy said. “We don’t just put beautiful paintings on the wall here. We care for them for the future.”
Preliminary scans and evaluations of the painting have gleaned a lot of new information about the painting, chiefly that an 11-inch, L-shaped tear was carefully repaired, most likely during the 19th century. The conservators also hope to learn more about the illustrated dog — which Gainsborough ultimately painted over — to the boy’s right and also the beginnings of a portrait of a man on the original use of the canvas.
“We don’t know if we’ll ever be able to find out who he is, but we will find out more about that painting,” McCurdy said.
The bulk of the project is being funded by a $250,000 grant from Bank of America, with other support from the Getty Foundation, Kim and Ginger Caldwell, Friends of Heritage Preservation and Haag-Streit USA. Citing a Japanese proverb to “embrace the old and seek the new,” Garrett Gin — the senior vice president of Bank of America’s Greater Los Angeles market — said his company was proud to donate to important cultural projects such as this.
“You can imagine the throngs of people who are going to discover and rediscover ‘Blue Boy,’” he said. “It’s really honoring this iconic piece, but also preparing for the people of the future.”
The Huntington’s in-house painting conservation is around 5 years old, with several restorations having been done during that developmental period. Project Blue Boy, as the big showcase of this new facet of the institution, represents the next step.
“For now, he’s going to get all of my attention,” O’Connell said.
“The Blue Boy” has been in near-continuous display at the Huntington Library almost since founder Henry E. Huntington controversially bought the painting from a British art dealer for a then-record $728,000 in 1921.