ART : Exorcising the Ghosts of Art : X-rays of 'Blue Boy' and 'Pinkie' and other British masterpieces reveal ghost images and the choices the artists made while painting.

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

It's as if you just found out that your sweet old grandmother wears lacy red underwear or that your raunchy second cousin, who claims he spent his youth on the streets of Katmandu, is actually a product of a New England boarding school.

Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" with a fluffy white dog? Sir Thomas Lawrence's "Pinkie" with drooping ribbons? Sir Joshua Reynolds' "Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse" with a plump pink cherub at her feet? John Constable's "View on the Stour Near Dedham" with dozens of changes in the landscape?

These icons of British painting at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino are like members of the family. Many frequent visitors to the lavish estate habitually stroll through the main gallery where the four paintings hold court, each hanging in the center of an expansive wall. True devotees have memorized every wrinkle, button, feather, leaf and rock in the familiar masterpieces.

But no one--including experts--could have guessed the secrets that X-rays have revealed. "I thought I knew these paintings, but I didn't know them," says curator Shelley Bennett, who has worked at the Huntington for 15 years.

The discoveries, announced earlier this month, are the result of an ongoing condition survey and technical analysis of the Huntington's British paintings collection. Financed by the Getty Grant Program, the study began in February, 1994, and is scheduled to end in October.

The first revelation--which was purely sensual--came when the paintings were removed from the walls and they could be observed more closely than ever before. "Some of them are so beautifully painted that they can make you weep," Bennett says.

What the X-rays disclosed was more of a shock. The topper: Jonathan Buttall, the subject of "Blue Boy," was originally painted with a dog--probably an English water spaniel--but it was later covered with a pile of painted rocks.

Why did the dog disappear? "I don't know," Bennett says. "It works compositionally. Probably it was just the concept." Taking his cues from Sir Anthony Van Dyck's early 17th-Century portraiture, Gainsborough, who painted "Blue Boy" in 1770, dressed his subject in a princely costume that would have been in style 130 years earlier. "I think the dog was so cute, so adorable--it's a pooch--that it undercut the aristocratic conceits of the painting," she says. "Or maybe Gainsborough thought all that fluff fought with the boy's hat."

An X-ray of the top part of "Blue Boy" was made in 1939 to see what lay under a mysterious ridge of paint. It revealed that the portrait had been painted over an incomplete likeness of an older man, on a canvas that had been cut down. The lower part of the painting was not X-rayed at that time, apparently because no hint of the dog could be seen by the naked eye.

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'Pinkie," depicting 11-year-old Sarah Barrett Moulton, also underwent a transformation-- from a relatively dour and stiff image to a frothy portrait. Bennett speculates that Lawrence's belated decision to paint the ribbons on the girl's hat as if they are fluttering in the breeze was calculated to mitigate her bold gaze and the distortion of one of her arms, shaped to accentuate the flow of the figure. X-rays further divulge that Lawrence started the painting on a standard 50-inch-long canvas, but added an 8 1/4-inch strip on the bottom to make room for the feet.

"He was a typical British artist who didn't use working drawings," Bennett says, noting that five other British paintings in the Huntington's collection have similar extensions.

Among other X-ray revelations, a face in the upper right corner of Reynolds' portrait of Sarah Siddons was originally a personification of "Melancholy," but it was changed to "Terror," possibly because the artist thought it worked better with "Pity," the face in the upper left. A cherub once sat at the feet of Siddons, but it was painted over--probably because it didn't fit in as the picture evolved.

Changes in the Constable landscape--including alterations in a sailboat and the profile of trees--are less dramatic but no less surprising because the artist appears to have worked out the painting in an oil sketch. "His paintings look so effortless. This shows how complex his working process actually was, and his willingness to shift even when the work was in an advanced state," Bennett says.

The technical survey began when Edward Nygren, director of the Huntington's art collections, decided it was time to publish a new catalogue of the institution's British paintings, one of the world's finest holdings of late 18th- and early 19th-Century material. Although the Huntington has issued books on other parts of its collection in the past few decades, the last catalogue of the British paintings was published in 1936. Since then, more than 70 works have been added to a holding that currently includes 148 works.

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A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, supplemented by a gift from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, provided funds for photography, visiting scholars and the salary of a research associate, Robyn Asleson, who recently completed her doctorate on English art at Yale University and has been doing research for the Huntington in London for the past three years.

"She's a brilliant, witty workaholic," Bennett says. "She's doing the primary research and coming up with wonderful information."

Modeled after publications of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Huntington's British painting catalogue will also include technical information on materials, artists' methods and the condition of the artworks. But obtaining the technical data presented a major challenge because the Huntington has neither a staff conservator nor a conservation lab.

The Getty Grant Program came to the rescue with funds to hire two conservators--Rosamond Westmoreland and Shelley Svoboda--who each work at the Huntington one day a week. They have set up shop in a basement space and in four upstairs galleries, which have been closed temporarily. (The main gallery has remained open throughout the project, with individual paintings removed for no more than two days each.)

Closing a block of galleries is not an ideal situation. "But the results have been so spectacular, it's really been worth it," Bennett says. "This has been one of the most exciting things I've ever done."

The technical survey offers the public a "behind-the-scenes view of the paintings" and "provides insight into the creative process," she says. "Paintings are usually seen as static objects. This shows that they are part of a living process." In addition, the project gives the Huntington critical information about the paintings' condition that will help to establish priorities for future treatment.

Working with a stereo microscope lent by the J. Paul Getty Museum's conservation department, the conservators have compiled detailed photographic information about each work. X-ray examinations of all 148 paintings would have been far too costly, so 28 works were selected for special study. Like the microscope work, the X-rays are also done on site.

"We chose them by three criteria," Bennett says. "First, the icons--'Blue Boy,' 'Pinkie,' 'Sarah Siddons' and the Constable. That was clear cut.

"Second, we have extraordinarily rich holdings of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney, a dozen or more works by each. So we decided to use an early-, middle- and late-career example of each artist. Not many collections could do that.

"Third were the problematic paintings, where we thought we might find something interesting . . . that could aid scholarship in the field," she says.

"So far, some of the X-rays show nothing, but we have gained fascinating new insights into all four of our icons," Bennett says.

Other long-hidden secrets may come to light before the project winds up in the fall. Until then, visitors can see a reproduction of the "Blue Boy" X-ray on an easel near the painting.

The display is creating a bit of stir in the normally staid gallery. It's also raising a few questions. One puzzled little boy checked out the X-ray and asked Bennett, "Where are 'Blue Boy's' ribs?"

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