The canvas was painted during his later years in Bath. The artist had considered his move from his native Suffolk with great care. He had visited Bath in the autumn of 1758 to see whether the continual flow of tourists to the spa would provide greater possibilities for portrait commissions and he decided there was. He returned to Ipswich, sold or gave away his possessions and moved his family to the West Country. In June 1760 he took a seven-year lease on the most imposing house in the center of Bath opposite the west end of the Abbey and during the early years of the 1760s his popularity as a portraitist grew exponentially. He had to work quickly and methodically and this must have affected his technique, which became more confident, freer and more painterly. The speed of his work led to comments of amazement as there are several reports of him finishing a head-and-shoulders portrait in as little as ninety minutes. But for the most complex compositions, he dispensed with preparatory sketches; before touching a canvas he insisted that the sitter was in front of him and he painting directly on to the canvas without using a preparatory charcoal outline. Indeed during his first three years in Bath his activity was so intense that he had exhausted himself to such an extent that in the autumn in 1763 the local newspaper announced his death and corrected the report in the subsequent edition. He continued painting landscapes and portraits and each year he exhibited the best of them in London but his work could vary in quality and his portraiture could descend into formulaic heads though they continued to amaze patrons with their ability to catch a likeness. His more ambitious works showed an experimental approach and an immediacy and spontaneity that made his work stand out. The Blue Page is one such painting.
The canvas has often been called "unfinished" which, on one level, reveals a naïve understanding of the artist’s approach to his work and, on another, conceals his true thought processes. While the head of the sitter in the canvas is brought to a finer finish, the costume is painted in just two shades of blue, one providing the color and the other, sometimes reinforced with a stroke of black paint, articulating the movement of the silk. The background in the painting has been described as a gold drape, though it seems more likely to represent a rocky outcrop using a color that acts as a foil to the cool tones of the blue suit. An overlaying tree trunk at the top right corner of the composition balances the darker tones of the landscape in the bottom left and the distant view to the left gives the composition a context and a scale. Rather than being unfinished, it would perhaps be more correct to consider the canvas as painted to satisfy no one but the artist – the composition is subtly balanced and the color perfectly nuanced – so, in his eyes at least, the canvas needed no further work.
When the painting first appeared in the literature, Sir Walter Armstrong described the canvas as "'Blue Boy' A Sketch," implying that it was a preparatory study for the justly famous painting that is now in the Huntington Art Collections in San Marino, California (fig. 1). The portrait, long known as The Blue Boy, was painted for the exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1770 and Gainsborough’s intention was to outshine the exhibits submitted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President of the newly formed Academy. In the Academy’s first exhibition held in May 1769, which was comprised of fewer exhibits than subsequent displays, Gainsborough had submitted portraits of Lady Molyeaux (Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery) and Lord Rivers (now Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio). Both sitters pose spontaneously, caught like a pendulum frozen in motion, dressed in contemporary costume, not dressed "like scaramouches" as Gainsborough writes in a contemporary letter. In contrast, Reynolds favoured using fancy dress for his sitters and he had started presenting his aesthetic ideas in annual discourses to the students of the Academy, so, in this thinly veiled criticism, Gainsborough intended to counter the President’s ideas a step further when he exhibited The Blue Boy.
The Huntington’s canvas is based on the work of the Flemish artist Sir Anthony van Dyck, and the pose is a mirror image of the figure of Lord George Villiers, who was later the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, taken from the double portrait in which Villiers is shown with his younger brother, Lord Francis, a canvas then, as now, in the British Royal Collection. Whether Gainsborough saw the double portrait at Buckingham House or whether he knew the composition through James MacArdell’s mezzotint from the 1760s is not known. Gainsborough’s sitter wears a van Dyck costume (a conceit that had been common practice in British portraiture since the 1720s) and he chooses blue as the dominant color that the 17th century master’s work uses to such powerful effect. Gainsborough’s intention was to equate his own work and genius with those of the artist who had transformed British portraiture, employ a ravishing painterly technique and ape the artist who was lauded in the 18th century as the apogee of artistic achievement in Britain.
Recent research by Dr. Susan Sloman has overturned the long-held belief that the Huntington painting is a portrait of Jonathan Buttall, a Soho ironmonger and a close friend of the artist, and she has established that the painting shows the artist’s nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, who was to become his assistant after his uncle moved to London in 1774. It would perhaps be simplistic to consider The Blue Boy as a straight-forward portrait as it is clearly an exercise in formal picture-making and in many ways it anticipates the so-called "fancy" pictures that the artist developed in the 1780s. The Blue Page should be regarded in the same way. Indeed the pose of the youth in The Blue Page looks as though the figure in The Blue Boy has just been given leave to finish working as a model and as he walks away he glances back towards the rugged background landscape that he has just left behind.
There are many parallels between the two paintings. The sitter wears a lighter version of The Blue Boy’s costume. The unorthodox size of the painting, perfectly suited to portraying a teenager, is very similar and there is the same combination of youthful beauty posed against raw nature. Furthermore, there are physiognomical similarities between the sitters in the two portraits. The long nose, oval face and brown hair make Gainsborough Dupont the likely model for The Blue Page, though, just as with The Blue Boy, it would be inaccurate to describe the painting as a portrait as it is a vehicle for the artist to experiment with his own virtuosity and create a poetic synergy of form and color.
Dr. Peter Cannon-Brookes mistakenly identified the sitter in The Blue Page as Edward Richard Gardiner, Gainsborough’s nephew. He based his suggestion on the similarities between the Taubman portrait and a head and shoulders portrait that Gainsborough painted of the eight-year old Gardiner in circa 1772. Clearly a private undertaking, that portrait now hangs in Tate Britain (fig. 2) and it shares many similarities with The Blue Page. The sitter’s head has the same degree of finish, he wears the same light blue van Dyck costume that is as freely painted, and displays the same extraordinarily confident draughtsmanship. While there might be a family resemblance between the two cousins, Gardiner’s retroussé nose is quite unlike the long straight nose in The Blue Page.
It seems, therefore, that The Blue Page can be dated between The Blue Boy of 1770 and the portrait of Edward Richard Gardiner painted in about 1772. To reinforce this date it is worth comparing the canvas to the formal portrait of Captain William Wade (fig. 3) that was exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1771 and displayed at the official opening of the Assembly Rooms in Bath in October later that year. This was an opportunity for the artist to show his work and to advertise his abilities in a building that would be visited by many of the city’s visitors. The portrait has now been returned to the wall on which Gainsborough intended it to be hung. As the Master of Ceremonies for the city, Wade was expected to dress at the height of fashion and to disport himself with the composure prescribed in contemporary etiquette books, and the elegance of the portrait shares many similarities with The Blue Page. Indeed the similarities of the set pose of Wade’s portrait and The Blue Boy emphasizes the animation in the full-length from the Taubman collection.
1770 was a crucial year for Gainsborough’s work. Exhibiting The Blue Boy was a challenge to Sir Joshua Reynolds and all that he espoused. By doing so Gainsborough had stated his claim to an alternative approach and he had set the seeds of absenting himself from the dictates of the Academy. He found this invigorating and it showed in his work with an increased interest in landscape painting, and a move to London in 1774 when the renewed lease on the house in the Abbey Churchyard had ended. Once he had moved to the capital, he refused to contribute to the Academy for the next three years and was only persuaded back by comments in the press and the reasoning of a fellow academician, Nathaniel Dance, whom he had known since he was a teenager.
Sotheby’s would like to thank Hugh Belsey for writing the catalogue essay for the present lot.
Note on the provenance
For much of the 20th century, The Blue Page was in the collection of the family of Sir Joseph B. Robinson, Bart. (1840-1929). Robinson was born in Cradock, Cape Colony and made his first fortune mining diamonds at Kimberley and later, in 1890, founded the Randfontein Estates Gold Mining Company. He and his family settled in England in late 1890s, taking up residence in Dudley House on Park Lane which had a magnificent eighty-foot long picture gallery originally created for the collection of the 11th Lord Ward. Robinson soon began collecting paintings himself with the help of his advisers, Sir George Donaldson and Charles Davis. Many of his most important purchases were made during the years 1894-99, the period when The Blue Page was acquired. In 1910 Robinson returned to South Africa where he remained for the duration of World War I and the contents of Dudley House were moved into storage at another location in London. By the end of the war Robinson was nearly eighty years old. In July of 1923, an auction comprising 116 lots from his collection was scheduled at Christie’s, an event which turned out to be one of the strangest sales to have taken place in the London auction rooms. On the eve of the sale, Robinson arrived in his wheelchair to bid farewell to his paintings, only to be seized with an acute attack of seller’s remorse. As it was too late to cancel the auction, he placed what he believed to be prohibitively high reserves on all the lots. Nevertheless, twelve paintings were still sold; the remaining 104 paintings were returned to storage and after Robinson’s death in 1929 they passed to his daughter, Ida, Princess Labia. She left them undisturbed in London until 1958 when 84 works, including The Blue Page, were exhibited at the Royal Academy. This portrait was amongst the last major group from the collection to be sold, at an auction at Sotheby’s, London in 1989.
This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Thomas Gainsborough by Hugh Belsey.
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