Ministers urged to keep culturally important painting by Joshua Reynolds in Britain

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Ministers are being urged to extend an export ban on Joshua Reynolds’ “Portrait of Omai”, featuring one of the UK’s first non-white celebrities, as a race begins to raise £50mn to keep the culturally sensitive work in Britain.

Lord Ed Vaizey, former Tory culture minister, and leading historians have written to the Financial Times asking ministers to allow more time for fundraising to stop the portrait “being permanently lost to Britain”.

The 18th-century portrait of the Pacific Islander is said by officials briefed on the matter to belong to John Magnier, the Irish billionaire horse-stud owner, and is in storage in the UK. Magnier’s office declined requests to comment.

Mai, his real name, travelled with Captain Cook on HMS Adventure to London in 1774 and became an instant celebrity, meeting King George III, attending the State Opening of Parliament and touring the country.

The group of letter writers claims the work is “a signal work in the history of colonialism, scientific exploration and of the Pacific” and says it is of “unique historical and cultural importance”.

Allies of Nadine Dorries, culture secretary, said she will look “sympathetically” on calls for a temporary export ban to be extended beyond its July 10 expiry date, with a decision expected this week.

The government imposed a temporary export ban on the portrait in March, saying there was a risk of it leaving the UK, but the £50mn valuation required to buy the work is beyond the reach of British galleries.

Dorries’ colleagues said the government has not been asked to make a financial contribution, but that the minister wanted to give fundraisers time to raise the money needed.

The original export ban was put in place in March to allow time for a UK gallery or institution to acquire the painting. Ministers said it could be extended until March 2023 if there was “a serious” fundraising effort.

Arts minister Lord Stephen Parkinson said at the time: “This stunning painting is impressive for its scale, its attention to detail, and the valuable insights it provides into the society in which Reynolds painted it.”

In their letter to the FT, experts from universities including Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard joined Vaizey and historian and broadcaster David Olusoga to say the work “captures a historic encounter between the British and non-European worlds”.

They call on the government to endorse a fundraising campaign, adding: “The story of Mai is now of more interest than ever as we seek to examine our past and understand who we are as a nation.”

Reynolds’ life-size painting, showing Omai in flowing white Tahitian dress adopting a classical pose, is acknowledged as a masterpiece of 18th-century portraiture, but also marks a historic cultural encounter between western society and one of the earliest visitors from Polynesia.

Reynolds exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy in 1776, but subsequently kept it close by him in his studio. It later passed down through the family of the Earl of Carlisle before being sold at Sotheby’s in 2001 for £10.3mn. 

The painting has been independently valued today at £50mn — the joint highest value for an export-banned work of art. Picasso’s “Child with a Dove” was also valued at £50mn in 2012.

“Omai” has not been seen publicly in the UK for nearly 20 years, after it was displayed at an exhibition of Reynolds’ paintings at Tate Britain in 2005.

Lucy Ward, an author coordinating the fundraising campaign, said the work was exceptional as a piece of art but also offered insights “into the way a non-white visitor and his culture were perceived in Georgian Britain”.

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