The Blue Boy (ca. 1770) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) shown in normal light photography (left), digital x-radiography (center, including a dog previously revealed in a 1994 x-ray), and infrared reflectography (right). Oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4.
One of the most iconic artworks in British and American history, The Blue Boy, made around 1770 by English painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), undergoes its first major technical examination and conservation treatment in public view, in a special satellite conservation studio set up in the west end of the Thornton Portrait Gallery in the Huntington Art Gallery. “Project Blue Boy” offers visitors a glimpse into the technical processes of a senior conservator working on the famous painting as well as background on its history, mysteries, and artistic virtues.
For the first three to four months during the year-long exhibition, The Blue Boy will be in the gallery as Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator, works on the painting to perform examination and analysis, as well as begin 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 while she performs structural work on the canvas and applies varnish with equipment that can’t be moved to the gallery space. Once structural work is complete, The Blue Boy will return to the gallery where visitors can witness the inpainting process until the close of the exhibition.
During the periods when the painting is in the gallery, O’Connell will work in public view on regularly scheduled days and times. For the first in-gallery period, from Sept. 22 through January 2019 (estimated), visitors can watch the process each Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 4 p.m., and on the first Sunday of each month from 2 to 4 p.m. A similar schedule will be in place during the second in-gallery session, estimated to begin in summer 2019.
When O’Connell is working in the gallery she might use any number of tools, the largest among them a Haag-Streit Hi-R NEO 900 surgical microscope that measures six feet in height. The state-of-the-art device has a long movable arm and optics that can magnify up to 25x to give the conservator a detailed view of the painting’s surface during the treatment stages, when special adhesives will be added to the areas of lifting paint. Many of the conservator’s hand tools will be showcased, giving visitors a chance to understand the precision inherent in the work.
(Photo courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.)