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`Blinking Sam' to be in full view

Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of nearsighted pal Samuel Johnson is donated to the Huntington and goes on display Tuesday.

December 16, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

One of four portraits of Samuel Johnson painted by his great friend Sir Joshua Reynolds is the new pride and joy of the Huntington in San Marino, which on Tuesday will unveil the gift from longtime supporters Loren and Frances Rothschild of Los Angeles.

Reynolds made the painting, affectionately known as "Blinking Sam," around 1775. It depicts his friend -- who so dominated British letters that his era is known as the Age of Johnson -- as he grasps a book close to his face, devouring it with squinting eyes. The intimate, 30-by-25-inch portrait was one of the many things that set Johnson's irascible intelligence aflame. Johnson (1709-84), whose eyesight was poor from childhood, thought it ungracious of Reynolds to have highlighted his bad vision. He confided as much to Hester Lynch Thrale, declaring, as she related in her 1786 memoir, "Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson," that "he would not be known by posterity for his defects only, let Sir Joshua do his worst." Thrale then defended the painter, reminding Johnson that Reynolds acknowledged one of his own defects -- hardness of hearing -- in a self-portrait that showed him cupping his ear.

Snorted Johnson: "He may paint himself as deaf if he chooses, but I will not be Blinking Sam."

Reynolds' three other portraits of Johnson remain in England, one in private hands, and one each at the Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery in London. The acquisition by the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens adds to its extensive holdings of 18th century British works, including other paintings by Reynolds and a first edition of Johnson's 1755 English dictionary.

Since buying "Blinking Sam" in 1987, the Rothschilds -- he is a principal in a private equity fund, she a judge on the California Court of Appeal -- have kept it over a fireplace in their home library. Loren Rothschild said Thursday that he has indulged a 30-year "collector's mania" for Johnson's images, letters and early editions. Rothschild is a longtime member of the Huntington's Board of Overseers, an advisory group; he co-chaired a $15-million fundraising campaign for the Huntington in the early 1990s.

He said he cherishes not only Johnson's eloquence and intellect, but his blend of deep humanity and extreme rationality. Johnson was famously generous under the gruff exterior. "Now everyone can go see him at the Huntington, where I think he'll be very happy," Rothschild said.

Neither the donor nor recipient would reveal the gift's appraised value. Three portraits by Reynolds sold in England since 2003 have gone for $5.4 million to $6.7 million, according to press reports. His "Portrait of Omai," a Tahitian prince, fetched more than $20 million at auction in 2001, when the Independent described it as "one of the finest British paintings to come up for sale in living memory."

"I'm very envious of the Huntington," said Angus Trumble, curator of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art, when told of the "Blinking Sam" gift. "It's one of the great men of the age, painted by another great man of the age, at a moment when British art and letters enjoyed an unprecedented efflorescence."

"It's one of the most affectionate portraits that Reynolds ever painted," said Richard Wendorf, director of the Boston Athenaeum and author of "Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society." "It corroborates in visual terms what observers often said about Johnson. 'He knows how to tear the heart out of a book.' If you look at that painting, Johnson is oblivious to the world. It's total absorption."

In addition to writing the first standard dictionary of the English language, one of history's most renowned literary projects, Johnson is considered one of the all-time great literary critics, especially on Shakespeare, and the essays he published independently in a series called "The Rambler" make him a soul-father to today's bloggers -- except that, unlike most bloggers, he insisted on being paid: One of his famous aphorisms is "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

The Huntington will celebrate the tricentennial of Johnson's birth in 2009 with an exhibition drawing on its collection of his books and papers, combined with items from the Rothschilds' collection. "Blinking Sam" will overlook it all.

"It's really appealing, because here's a very famous person caught in an informal moment," said Robert Ritchie, director of research at the Huntington. Usually he added, we know 18th century people "through these grand manner portraits, where everyone's shining on about looking their best and being painted at their best. It's not very often you get something as informal and loving as this. Reynolds is painting his grumpy pal."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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