He’s back. Blue Boy, all in satin, his hand resting on his hip with tremendous assurance, has returned to London after a century, looking – it would seem – as good as new. For it is exactly 100 years tomorrow since Sir Thomas Gainsborough’s most famous painting left England for the US, having been sold to the Californian railway magnate, Henry E Huntington, for the then fabulous sum of £182,000. The deal was engineered by Joseph Duveen, the brilliant art dealer from Hull, thanks to whom a great many British and European masterpieces ended up on the wrong side of the Atlantic (do read SN Behrman’s hilarious biography of him, Duveen: The Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time).

Just before Blue Boy left for America, the painting was put on show in the National Gallery, where it attracted 90,000 visitors. The Times noted sadly, quoted in the room where the painting is now on show: “We have been to say ‘goodbye’ to a boy who is leaving England, in a day or two, forever. He received us dressed in a beautiful blue satin suit.” In an optimistic gesture, the National’s then director, Sir Charles Holmes, wrote on the reverse of the painting: “au revoir”. And now he’s here, back in the National Gallery, waiting to receive the crowds again.

The return of the painting, which has been on display at the Huntington in San Marino, California for the last century, is, of course, wonderful (and unlikely to happen again for another century once he goes home in May). Blue Boy appears in countless reproductions but there is nothing quite like sitting before the original, meeting that frank, direct gaze, admiring the shimmering blue of his Van Dyck-esque satin suit (Gainsborough often dressed his sitters in such clothes, in homage to the artist, whom he very much admired), all set against a sombre background with the light breaking around the boy. Oddly, it didn’t attract much acclaim when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1770.

The National has turned the exhibition into a chance to demonstrate Gainsborough’s well known debt to Van Dyck and his grand manner portraiture. So, next to Blue Boy there are two of the Flemish master’s superb portraits from the gallery’s collection, both of two brothers, both finely composed, both revealing character in stance. The little sons of the Duke of Buckingham, George and Francis Villiers, were most obviously the models for Gainsborough: George, in particular, with his hand on hip and dressed in the most fabulous rich rose pink satin. Next to them are Lord John Stuart and Lord Bernard Stewart, models of aristocratic hauteur; like Francis Villiers, they would die for the king in the English civil war.

Opposite them are Gainsborough’s ladies: the famous portrait of Mrs Siddons, and Elizabeth and Mary Linley. So, five portraits in all, a splendid little show. Small, and free to visit (with a ticket), but spectacular in its way.

Blue Boy’s departure for America caused universal gloom. Well, he’s back with us until May. Go and see him while you can.

National Gallery, to May 15; nationalgallery.org.uk

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