Project Blue Boy

Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (ca. 1770) in normal light photography. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In an exciting “first” for The Huntington, visitors this fall will be able to watch and learn about the conservation treatment of Thomas Gainsborough’s iconic masterpiece The Blue Boy through a special installation in the Huntington Art Gallery that opens on September 22.

Project Blue Boy,” on view in the Thornton Portrait Gallery, will give visitors a fascinating glimpse into the technical processes carried out by senior paintings conservator Christina O’Connell as she works on the painting in public view in the gallery. (See below for a schedule of O’Connell’s gallery hours.) A special satellite conservation lab will be set up adjacent to the wall where the painting normally hangs. Surrounding displays, some interactive, will shed light on the famed painting’s history, mysteries, and artistic virtues as well as offer details about the conservation process. Tools of the conservator’s trade will be showcased, and specially trained docents will provide additional information.

Digital X-radiography shows a dog previously revealed in a 1994 X-ray. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The most popular painting at The Huntington, The Blue Boy has been on display almost continuously since it was acquired by Henry Huntington in 1921; and, for that reason, there have been few opportunities for conservation study or treatment. “The most recent conservation treatments have mainly involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep The Blue Boy on view as much as possible,” says O’Connell. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” There are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, and the canvas is separating from its support lining. These issues and more will be addressed by the conservation treatment.

For the first three to four months of the exhibition, O’Connell will work several days a week in the gallery, performing such painstaking processes as paint stabilization, surface cleaning, and removal of non-original varnish and overpaint. The painting then will go off view for another three to four months for structural work on the canvas and application of varnish. Once these steps are complete, The Blue Boy will return to the gallery, where visitors can watch the final stages of the conservation process until the close of the exhibition in September 2019.

Infrared reflectography. Data collected during technical analysis of the painting last fall helped inform the conservation treatment plan. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The Thornton Portrait Gallery, the room where The Blue Boy and other grand manner portraits are displayed, will be closed until Sept. 21, 2018 for the “Project Blue Boy” installation.

In-Gallery Work Schedule

Senior paintings conservator Christina O’Connell will conduct in-gallery conservation treatment on The Blue Boy on the following schedule.

First in-gallery period (Sept. 22, 2018–January 2019, estimated):
Opening day, Sept. 22, 10 a.m.–noon
Every Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m.–noon and 2–4 p.m.
First Sunday of each month, 2–4 p.m.

Second in-gallery period (Summer 2019, estimated)
A similar schedule to the above will be in place.

Note that the in-gallery work schedule is subject to change; check for updates on The Huntington’s online calendar.

Conservation of The Blue Boy is funded by a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. Additional generous support for this project is provided by the Getty Foundation, Kim and Ginger Caldwell, Friends of Heritage Preservation, and Haag-Streit USA.

You can learn more about “Project Blue Boy” on The Huntington’s website.

And you can watch a video about “Project Blue Boy” on YouTube.

Thea M. Page is the director of marketing communications at The Huntington.

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