After more than two years of planning, the paintings of 18th-century British painter Thomas Gainsborough finally arrived at the San Diego Museum of Art last Friday. But curator John Marciari didn’t tear open the packages in a Christmas-morning frenzy. There would have been a couple of problems with that.

First, the paintings had to acclimate in their crates, which takes at least 24 hours.

And second, some of the paintings are 7 feet tall. They were shipped inside boxes within crates that were up to 9 feet tall, 6 feet wide and a foot-and-a-half deep. Only one painting was in each crate.

So on Monday, a half-dozen people worked to haul each of the 11 crates upright, and lift the paintings out. The paintings were immediately put under special exam lights so inspectors from the San Diego Museum of Art and the Cincinnati Art Museum, where they had last hung, could go over every inch to make sure their condition hadn’t changed during the trip.

The show featuring the work of Gainsborough and living British painter Howard Hodgkin opens Jan. 29. (We’ve been following the preparation of this exhibit for the last few weeks.) The Hodgkin paintings arrived at the museum on Thursday and will be hung early next week, after the room containing the Gainsborough paintings is complete. Today, final touches are being put on the 18th-century-style dresses being displayed along with the paintings.

Marciari said so far everything has gone “more or less” as planned, which is good because the success of this exhibit is likely to open up many opportunities for the museum.

This is the first big show of European artists that the museum has done in recent years, Marciari said. The Gainsborough paintings not only complement the museum’s permanent collection, but also allow the museum to work with partners from major institutions around the world that loaned the paintings to the exhibit.

“Every work in this exhibit is a major work of art,” Marciari said.

Hanging the works is the “first big step” to hosting larger traveling exhibitions of European art.

Putting the pieces on the wall required special considerations. The paintings are bigger than most in the museum’s collection, so they had to hang higher. Rather than lining up the top edges, the installers hung the paintings so that their vertical centers are at the same height. It is more visually appealing that way, Marciari said.

James Gielow, the head preparator at the San Diego Museum of Art, measures barriers that will protect the Gainsborough paintings. Photo: Sam Hodgson

And when they were on the wall earlier this week, Marciari was pleased.

“You imagine what it will look like, but it is always different when works are there in the flesh,” he said. “It feels surprisingly different than Cincinnati because it is in a bigger, broader space. The Cincinnati space was more narrow.”

Viewing the big paintings from across a big room will allow people to appreciate them even more. They were painted to be a commanding presence seen at a distance, such as at the end of a long gallery in an English country house.

“Then when you approach, you can read more of the details he (Gainsborough) has put into the paintings,” Marciari said. “As you get very close, all of that begins to dissolve in a flurry of brush work.”

“He’s as good at putting paint on canvas as anyone who has ever lived.”

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More glimpses of the work to prepare this exhibit, captured Thursday by Sam Hodgson:

Museum staff prepare the barriers that will protect the paintings from the public.

Along with the Gainsborough paintings, the museum will also have mannequins clad in 18th-century garb. Cynthia Amneus, the fashion arts and textile curator from the Cincinnati Museum of Art, traveled to San Diego to prepare the mannequins. Michelle Bassler (left in the fourth image below), was excited to work with the piece. “That’s the part of the job that I love. Those couple of seconds just made my day. To touch a garment from the 1700s — who gets to do that?”

About midday Thursday, the Howard Hodgkin paintings arrived in large crates. After acclimating, the museum staff will begin unpacking and hanging the paintings next week.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that museum visitors will be allowed to touch the 18-century dresses on display. We regret the error.

Dani Dodge is an artist and writer. You can reach her at Dani@DaniDodge.com, see her work at www.danidodge.com or follow her on Twitter: @DaniDodge.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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