Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, The Return of a British Icon by Christine Riding


In the winter of 1922, Gainsborough’s ‘The Blue Boy’ hung at the National Gallery in London for three weeks before it sailed across the Atlantic to its new home in California. It was a public farewell to a beloved painting. 100 years later (to the day), Gainsborough’s masterpiece returns to the National Gallery to go on display in Trafalgar Square once again. This is the first time the painting has been loaned by The Huntington – it is a once-in-a-century opportunity to see this iconic work in the UK.

This richly illustrated publication, to accompany the exhibition, explores the lasting influence of this iconic painting on British art and culture. Including a select group of paintings that demonstrate the profound influence of Sir Anthony van Dyck and the old master tradition on Gainsborough’s practice and identity, the catalogue examines this masterpiece within the context of the National Gallery’s collection.

27 x23 cm


64 pages, colour illustrations

Published by The National Gallery, London

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The National Gallery, London
(25 January – 15 May, 2022)

During the nineteenth century, the painting’s fame grew and full-length portraits by Gainsborough and his contemporaries became much sought after by wealthy American collectors. American buying power from the 1880s onwards was mirrored by the comparative economic decline of the British aristocracy. The sale of The Blue Boy in 1921, to the American railroad magnate and collector Henry E. Huntington, was therefore seen by many as emblematic of this shift in economic and cultural power. Given the proximity to the end of the First World War, the loss of The Blue Boy was unsurprisingly viewed as a national tragedy. However, its afterlife, as a kind of permanent ambassador for British art, has undoubtedly fed into ideas of Britain and Britishness – its history, society, culture and character – that still resonate today.

Christine Riding is The Jacob Rothschild Head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of British Paintings, The National Gallery, London. With Contributions by Susanna Avery-Quash is Senior Research Curator, Curatorial Department, The National Gallery, London and Melinda McCurdy, Imogen Tedbury and Jacqueline Riding

ISBN 9781857096804