Two of the most iconic examples of British portraiture are currently on public display at the National Gallery in London—the new acquisition Portrait of Sir Thomas Lawrence known as The red boy joined The blue boyThomas Gainborough’s masterpiece which is on loan until the spring from the Huntington Museum in California.
One hundred years after wealthy American Henry E. Huntington purchased Gainsborough’s masterpiece, The blue boy (ca. 1770) of the Duke of Westminster, and he left England for his new home in the United States, the seminal portrait is back in the United Kingdom. The free exhibit runs through May 3, 2022. This is the first time the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens have loaned his prized painting.
At the National Gallery, The blue boy is displayed in Room 46 among a small selection of related masterpieces that connect to Gainsborough’s oeuvre and influences, in particular paintings by van Dyck. (Read more in the curator’s video Why is Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ so famous?)
Offering a rare chance to see these two portraits of British masters under one roof, while The blue boy is on loan, the National Gallery in London has completed the conservation of Portrait of Charles-William Lambton (1818-31) by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830), and the newly acquired painting is now installed in Room 35.
world famous as red boy, the 1825 work was made when Lawrence, one of the National Gallery’s first trustees, was at the height of his powers as a painter and portrait painter, a year after the museum opened to the public in 1824.
The painting was acquired last year from a private collection by private sale via Christie’s, at a “special price” of £9.3 million (approximately $12.7 million). Funding came from the Art Fund and the American Friends of the National Gallery, as well as other sources.
The portrait of Charles Lambton, commissioned by his father John George Lambton (1792-1840), created 1st Earl of Durham in 1833, caused a sensation when first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1825. Still popular, The red boy was the first painting to appear on a UK postage stamp, and the image has long featured on products ranging from tea tins to food packaging.
The portrait of the six- or seven-year-old boy fully displays Lawrence’s mature powers, in the open yet thoughtful gaze, the elegant yet informal pose with the bent arm reflecting the Renaissance artist’s traditional depiction of melancholy, the painting bravery of the red velvet costume, and the extraordinary and unusual background. Lawrence placed his babysitter outside at night, sitting on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, with the moonlight reflecting in the water – it has been suggested he may have been inspired by Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, brought to London in 1785 and possibly exhibited in 1818 (it did not enter the collection of the National Gallery until 1880). The effect is undoubtedly romantic, and Lawrence may have intended his setting to characterize the young boy as being on the cusp of a journey through life – although he must not have known when painting this, that his young babysitter was to die tragically at the age of just 13 from tuberculosis.
Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery, remarked that the portrait “is a tour de force of technical genius and at the same time a moving portrayal of a young boy coming to his senses”.
Adding: “This dazzling portrait will join other superb paintings of children in the Gallery, including works by Murillo, Hogarth, Liotard, Gainsborough and Vigée Le Brun. I am confident that…it will quickly become a much admired painting for all of our visitors.
Before The blue boy visited London, a portrait commissioned by Kehinde Wiley hung on a wall opposite the Huntington. (Wiley has an exhibition inspired by the romantic landscape, The preludeon view at the National Gallery until 18 April 2022).