Thomas Gainsborough’s painting The Blue Boy will return to England exactly 100 years after it was acquired by a US businessman.
The 1770 portrait was sold in 1921 for a record-breaking $728,00 (the equivalent of £182,200 back then, but just over £9 million in today's money) to rail magnate Henry E. Huntington, and the eventual export of the British masterpiece in 1922 provoked consternation in the UK.
The painting first appeared in public at the Royal Academy in 1770, the year it was painted, when it was titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman. By 1798 it was being called The Blue Boy, a nickname that stuck.
Once owned by the Duke of Westminster, more than 90,000 attended the National Gallery to bid farewell to the work, and the institution's then director Charles Holmes mournfully scrawled au revoir on the back of 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 will go on display on 25 January 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.
Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery, said the 2022 loan was “a unique opportunity for visitors to see Gainsborough at his dazzling best”. He called it “a painting of supreme poise and elegance … without doubt a masterpiece of British art”.