and is back. Blue Boy, all in satin, hand resting on his hip with tremendous confidence, is back in London after a century, looking – it seems – as good as new. For it will be exactly 100 years tomorrow that Sir Thomas Gainsborough’s most famous painting left England for the United States, after being sold to Californian railroad magnate, Henry E Huntington, for the then fabulous sum of £182,000. The deal was engineered by Joseph Duveen, the brilliant art dealer from Hull, thanks to whom many British and European masterpieces ended up on the wrong side of the Atlantic (read the hilarious biography of SN Behrman, Duveen: The Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time).
Just before Blue Boy left for America, the painting was exhibited at the National Gallery, where it attracted 90,000 visitors. The Times noted sadly, quoted in the room where the painting now hangs: “We went to say ‘goodbye’ to a boy who is leaving England, in a day or two, forever. He received us dressed in a beautiful blue satin suit. In a gesture of optimism, the then director of the National, Sir Charles Holmes, wrote on the reverse of the painting: ‘goodbye’. And now he is here, back in the National Gallery, waiting to receive the crowds again.
The return of the painting, which has been on display at the Huntington in San Marino, Calif., for a century, is of course wonderful (and likely won’t happen again for another century once it returns home in May). Blue Boy appears in countless reproductions, but there’s nothing quite like sitting in front of the original, meeting that candid, direct gaze, admiring the shimmering blue of his Van Dyck-style satin suit (Gainsborough often dressed his models with such clothes, in homage to the artist, whom he greatly admired), all on a dark background where the light bursts around the boy. Curiously, it didn’t garner much praise when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1770.
The National turned the exhibition into a chance to demonstrate Gainsborough’s well-known debt to Van Dyck and his grandiose portraits. Thus, alongside Blue Boy, two superb portraits of the Flemish master from the gallery’s collection, both of two brothers, both finely composed, both revealing postures of character. The Duke of Buckingham’s grandsons, George and Francis Villiers, were the obvious role models for Gainsborough: George, in particular, with his hand on his hip and dressed in the most fabulous rich pink satin. Beside them are Lord John Stuart and Lord Bernard Stewart, models of aristocratic height; like Francis Villiers, they would die for the king in the English Civil War.
Opposite them are the Ladies of Gainsborough: the famous portrait of Mrs Siddons, along with Elizabeth and Mary Linley. So, five portraits in all, a splendid little spectacle. Small and free to visit (with a ticket), but spectacular in its own way.
The departure of Blue Boy for America has sown universal gloom. Well, he’s back with us until May. Go see it while you can.
National Gallery, until May 15; nationalgallery.org.uk