Gainsborough painting The Blue Boy to return to the UK after 100 years

Thomas Gainsborough’s painting The Blue Boy will return to the UK exactly 100 years after it was acquired by a US businessman.

The 1770 portrait was sold in 1921 for a record-breaking £182,200 to rail magnate Henry E. Huntington, and the eventual export of the British masterpiece in 1922 provoked consternation in the UK.

More than 90,000 attended the National Gallery to bid farewell to the work, and the institution’s then director Charles Holmes even scrawled “Au revoir” on the painting in the hope of seeing it returned to the UK.

It has remained in California’s Huntington museum ever since, but Gainsborough’s work will once again hang in the London gallery after a one-time-only loan was agreed to bring The Blue Boy home for the 100th anniversary of its departure.

The painting, which is referenced in numerous films, will go on display on January 25 2022, exactly a century to the day since it left the UK. It will remain in the National Gallery for five months before returning to the US permanently.

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery, said: “The loan of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy to the National Gallery is truly exceptional and a unique opportunity for visitors to see Gainsborough at his dazzling best. 

“Rich in historical resonances, a painting of supreme poise and elegance, The Blue Boy is without doubt a masterpiece of British art.”

The Blue Boy is widely considered among Gainsborough’s best and most famous works, and depicts roughly life-size youth in blue 17th-century attire, conjectured to be a merchant’s heir named Jonathan Buttle, gazing towards the viewer.

After being painted in 1770, the work passed through the collections of a succession of politicians, painters, and aristocrats before being displayed by the Royal Institution the Royal Academy.

'A painting of supreme poise and elegance'

Credit: PA

It was sold for the equivalent of £7 million in today’s money and went into the collection of the museum established by rail magnate Huntington in San Marino, California. Its fame has led to it being referenced in films including Ghostbusters and The Naked Gun.

Karen R. Lawrence, Huntington president, said: “This masterpiece has made an indelible mark on both art history and popular culture, capturing the imaginations of a wide range of audiences.

“Given The Blue Boy’s iconic status at The Huntington, this is an unprecedented loan, one which we considered very carefully. We hope that this partnership with the National Gallery will spark new conversations, appreciation, and research on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The international loan deal comes after the National Gallery sealed a “collegiate” agreement to settle a dispute over 39 Impressionist paintings claimed by the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

The collection was once owned by Hugh Lane, who died in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, and has sparked a century-long dispute between the UK and Ireland over ownership. This year the National Gallery agreed works will now spend longer in Dublin. 

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