Commentary: 'The Blue Boy' is returning to London. Why experts fear the trip presents a grave risk to a masterpiece

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Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy,” arguably the astir celebrated European Old Master coating successful America, volition question to London for a January accumulation astatine Britain’s National Gallery — the archetypal clip the beloved icon has near the walls of the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens successful San Marino since it was acquired a period ago.

“We were shocked,” Mark Leonard said erstwhile The Times asked astir the determination made past week by the museum’s committee of trustees. Leonard, the retired conservator of paintings astatine the J. Paul Getty Museum, is simply a starring dependable successful the conservation field. The “we” is simply a sheet of 9 salient American and European creation conservators convened astatine the Huntington successful December 2018 to measure the painting’s condition.

Sending the representation overseas was unanimously opposed by the adept team, who believed question puts the prized enactment astatine sedate risk. They warned of imaginable structural harm to the 250-year-old canvas from the arduous trip. Museum medication overruled their advice.

The Huntington’s signature enactment of creation is simply a superb representation of a life-size, ruddy-cheeked younker costumed successful the flashy bluish satin tunic, breeches and cloak of an aristocrat of an earlier time. It was past seen successful Europe astatine London’s National Gallery earlier departing by steamship for the United States. The astonishment announcement of its planned travel backmost to the United Kingdom was wrapped successful excited tributes.

“A expansive return.” “Unprecedented.” “A once-in-a-century opportunity.”

Ninety 1000 radical jammed the National Gallery successful January 1922 to accidental goodbye to what galore regarded arsenic a nationalist treasure being lost. Eager throngs likewise tin beryllium expected during adjacent year’s four-month visit, guaranteed to beryllium a media sensation.

The squad of conservators was evaluating a people of indispensable attraction for the delicate canvas, portion the anticipation of the indebtedness was already being discussed. They cautioned that the representation should ne'er travel.

Among the radical was Michael Gallagher, conservation caput astatine New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; Rica Jones, a Gainsborough specializer who is retired conservator astatine Tate Britain, the nationalist postulation of British creation housed successful London connected the banks of the Thames; Mark Aronson from the Yale Center for British Art successful New Haven; and Mikkel Scharff, caput of the Institute of Conservation astatine the Royal Danish Academy successful Copenhagen.

A concise two-page papers connected Huntington letterhead recommending a program of attraction for the masterpiece, reviewed by The Times, is unambiguous. It concludes that “the sheet powerfully recommends against lending ‘The Blue Boy.’”

In 2 paragraphs and 7 slug points, the admonition is repeated 3 times. The panel’s ain suggested conservation attraction was adjacent cited arsenic a crushed for denying a loan.

Why the panel’s proposal was rejected is unclear.

Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence did not respond to a petition for comment. In a quality merchandise announcing the London exhibition, Lawrence said, “Given ‘The Blue Boy’s’ iconic presumption astatine the Huntington, this is an unprecedented loan, 1 which we considered precise carefully.”

The creation museum’s director, Christina Nielsen, said successful an email that advisability of a indebtedness was not portion of the panel’s brief, “as we did not privation attraction decisions inflected by question considerations.” Nielsen said that aft completion of the conservation work, a 2nd sheet of unnamed curators and conservators met successful September 2019 and determined that a azygous indebtedness to London could beryllium undertaken.

Conservation standards usually favour the slightest invasive process to support an object’s creator and historical integrity. “The Blue Boy” is distinctive successful retaining overmuch of its archetypal structural wholeness.

Joseph Duveen, the assertive New York creation trader who sold the masterpiece to Henry E. Huntington and his salient creation collector woman Arabella successful 1921, regularly added caller linings to the backs of Old Master canvases to spruce them up for merchantability to Gilded Age American plutocrats. The dealer’s crude relining process often resulted successful flattened aboveground paint.

For reasons unknown, “The Blue Boy” escaped that communal fate. It retains some a two-century-old lining — “delicate but healthy,” successful Leonard’s statement — and the lively aboveground brushwork for which Gainsborough is acclaimed.

Two conservation plans for stabilization of “The Blue Boy” were imaginable — 1 elaborate, the different minimal. The elaborate program would interfere with the painting’s uncommon structural integrity. The minimal program was truthful chosen, “predicated connected the grounds that the representation not travel.”

The radical besides dismissed immoderate thought of selecting a antithetic people of enactment truthful that loans could beryllium safely accomplished. “According to nonrecreational guidelines of signifier and ethical conduct,” the conservators wrote, treatments are “not undertaken solely to hole an entity for imaginable travel.”

The Huntington completed the chosen conservation enactment implicit the people of 2019 and 2020. The lengthy process included removal of layers of yellowed varnish, thorough cleaning, adhesion of lifting and flaking paint, in-painting wherever losses were found, and stabilization of the canvas enactment and woody stretcher bars.

Despite the adept panel’s warning, the depository past secured the indebtedness arrangement. No indebtedness interest is being charged, but an as-yet unannounced reciprocal indebtedness has been guaranteed to the Huntington from the National Gallery.

Nielsen and Lawrence, erstwhile president of Sarah Lawrence College, had some been hired successful San Marino conscionable a fewer months earlier the planetary squad of conservators met. Preparations for the institution’s ain centennial celebrations successful 2019 were past good underway. Looking backmost implicit the Huntington’s past, the iconic communicative of “The Blue Boy” loomed large.

Leonard, who had overseen conservation issues astatine the Huntington during his lengthy Getty tenure, earlier the San Marino depository brought its ain full-time conservator onto the staff, was hired arsenic a advisor to the project. He knew “The Blue Boy” well, having performed a insignificant attraction connected the canvas conscionable earlier his 2010 retirement.

Ironically, 2 participants successful the team’s deliberations are affiliated with the 2 museums present progressive successful the indebtedness statement that the sheet unanimously advised against.

Paul Ackroyd is the highly regarded paintings conservator astatine London’s National Gallery. Huntington conservator Christina O’Connell projected the chosen treatment.

It was executed during a fascinating exhibition, “Project Blue Boy,” which allowed the nationalist to ticker her astatine enactment connected cleaning and restoration of the canvas successful a workplace acceptable up wrong a depository gallery. The coating has since been returned to its cardinal spot successful the museum’s Thornton Portrait Gallery.

O’Connell and Ackroyd did not respond to requests for comment.

The travel to London from Los Angeles volition beryllium arduous for a delicate enactment of art. Dangers lurk.

The coating volition beryllium removed from its climate-controlled gallery, crated, trucked implicit aboveground streets to the airport, loaded into an airplane hold, flown crossed the state and an water (perhaps with a halt connected the way), landed successful London, trucked to the National Gallery, uncrated and installed successful different climate-controlled gallery. In May, astatine the extremity of the exhibition, the process and itinerary volition beryllium reversed.

The conservation committee’s interest is that the structural instability of aging paints, canvas, wood and lining volition beryllium accelerated successful ways that don’t hap to a fragile but mostly intact Old Master coating hanging undisturbed connected a depository wall. Transit vibrations and clime shifts are among superior worries, though they are improbable to origin harm disposable to the bare eye.

“There won’t beryllium crumbs astatine the bottommost of the crate erstwhile it gets back,” Leonard said. The harm volition beryllium much insidious.

Past indebtedness requests for the picture, which is synonymous with the Huntington’s identity, person been rejected. Now, erstwhile a depository successful Paris, Dubai oregon Shanghai comes calling, it volition beryllium harder to accidental no.

Breaking the precedent of refusing each indebtedness requests creates a no-win concern for the institution. Saying nary generates planetary sick volition toward the Huntington from those who person been rebuffed, portion saying yes sets the signifier for further harm to the painting.

Before coming to America, “The Blue Boy” had been successful the postulation of the Duke of Westminster, said to beryllium Britain’s richest adjacent who would aboriginal enactment Nazi appeasement. During World War I, the coating was sent for safekeeping to the National Gallery, wherever it remained until it was sold.

Duveen bought it from the Duke, who needed currency to wage taxes, successful October 1921. That November, Henry and Arabella Huntington acquired it from Duveen for a princely sum — the equivalent of much than $11 cardinal today. With large fanfare, the representation came cross-country by bid to Los Angeles the pursuing year.

The coating has hung successful their sumptuous property successful the tony suburb of San Marino ever since.

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