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Huntington's finest pack up

'Pinkie' and 'Blue Boy' will be in a new room for now, to join their fellow aristocrats in another gallery as the mansion is renovated.

December 18, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"The BLUE BOY" and "Pinkie" are on the move, with an entourage of 18th century British aristocrats and landed gentry. Sumptuously dressed and elaborately coiffed, the cast of characters includes the Viscount and Viscountess Ligonier, he with his horse, she with her art supplies; Jane Fleming, who became the Countess of Harrington, posing as a classical sculpture; composer Karl Friedrich Abel penning a musical score with his viol de gamba at his side; the Duke of Marlborough's children, acting out a morality play about a fortuneteller.

Paintings of all these people still adorn the main portrait gallery at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens -- but only until the end of the year. After that, "The Blue Boy" and "Pinkie" will take up residence in an adjacent gallery in the mansion, and their compatriots will go into storage.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Emma Hart -- An article in the Dec. 18 Calendar section about British portraits at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens said Emma Hart, the subject of one of the pictures, was in debtors' prison from 1913 to 1914. She was incarcerated from 1813 to 1814.

Upsetting as that may be to people who like things exactly as they are at the stately institution in San Marino, the changes are only temporary, in preparation for a major renovation of the mansion built almost a century ago as the home of railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington. The portrait gallery and the entire second floor of the house will be closed Jan. 3. The whole mansion will be shuttered about five months later, but not before some of the artwork is moved to a new wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art on the Huntington grounds.

The new wing -- to be called the Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery, in honor or the Huntington trustee emeritus and former Times Mirror chairman and his wife -- will be inaugurated May 26 with an installation of British and European paintings and sculptures customarily displayed in the mansion. When the mansion's renovation is complete, a project expected to take about three years, those works will return to their traditional home and the Erburu will begin its life as a showcase for American art.

The impending move puts a spotlight on an ensemble of paintings largely acquired through Joseph Duveen, the celebrated art dealer who played a crucial role in forming America's greatest collections in the early 20th century. A tenacious competitor with a golden tongue and child-like charm, he had an extraordinary talent for persuading impoverished British and other European collectors to sell their cultural legacies to wealthy Americans. As Duveen's client, Huntington was in a league with J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Samuel H. Kress.

Huntington's second wife, Arabella, cemented his relationship with the dealer, says Meryle Secrest, author of the new biography "Duveen: A Life in Art." An astute collector who had fallen under the spell of Duveen, Arabella married Henry E. Huntington in 1913 -- after the death of her first husband, Collis P. Huntington, who was also Henry's uncle. Sensing an opportunity, Duveen helped Henry and Arabella with their wedding and honeymoon arrangements, then supplied the artwork that would establish Henry as a leading collector of British paintings.

"Huntington was no match for Duveen plus Arabella," Secrest says.

He made his first big purchase of British paintings from Duveen in 1911, paying $775,000 (about $14 million when adjusted for inflation) for three portraits. By 1926, Huntington had paid Duveen about $10 million (roughly $150 million in today's dollars) for 38 British pictures, including 20 full-length portraits. The collection has grown enormously since then, but the 18th century British "grand manner" portraits are its heart.

Including prime examples of the work of Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney, the collection is renowned for its aesthetic quality and dazzling brushwork.

One after another, the portraits celebrate the artists' ability to arrange figures in space and render silks, satins, velvets, lace and feathers while buffing up the physical attributes of their clients and confirming their social standing.

And indeed, the subjects of these paintings were real people. "British Paintings at the Huntington," a hefty catalog by researcher and writer Robyn Asleson and Huntington curator Shelley M. Bennett, is packed with art history and technical information -- and juicy personal insights for art lovers who want to know something about the folks in the fancy outfits.

Gainsborough's 1770 painting of Jonathan Buttall, known as "The Blue Boy," depicts the teenage son of a London ironmonger. When he grew up and took over the family business, Buttall was thought to be rich, but he fell deeply into debt. A creditor forced him into bankruptcy in 1796, when he auctioned his property and personal effects, including his portrait and other works by Gainsborough.

"The Blue Boy" passed through several private collections, including that of British painter John Hoppner. Duveen bought the painting on behalf of Huntington from the second Duke of Westminster in 1921.

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